There’s a very sharp article in this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine which focuses on the eschatological tendency of commentators to frame the Middle East in terms of what he calls “‘five minutes to midnight’ catastrophism”. Re reading Slugger from that first summer of 2002, it’s clear that some of the issues prominent then where viewed in such a frame. In July that year, Brendan O’Neill demurred:
… in their attempt to feed off Drumcree, nationalist and Unionist politicians merely expose the hole at the heart of their politics, where neither side has anything of substance to fight for. By elevating cultural issues over political questions, the peace process has robbed both nationalist and Unionist parties of their rationale – and has unleashed new rounds of conflict that may be fleeting, but which are also destructive and sectarian.
Back then most of the focus was on the inability of the moderates to swing a deal. Chris Ryder in the Sunday Times:
“Back in the heady days after the signing of the agreement, and its overwhelming endorsement north and south of the border, he should have smothered the minority who are now threatening to drive him from both jobs. That grave mistake having been made, Trimble has allowed himself to be hounded into progressively more barren territory by critics and enemies. Having made such giant leaps towards reconciliation, he should more aggressively have made common cause with his fellow pioneers.”
Ryder framed the contemporary dilemma facing Unionism as a whole:
“The fundamental one is that unionists, from the moderate to the extreme, have to make up their minds whether they are simply anti-Catholic or pro-union. Not my words but those of one of Trimble’s ministers. That is the real question for unionists this Drumcree Sunday. Is the future Orange or golden?”
Gregory Campbell’s opposition at the time was aided considerably by his resort to some damning statistics:
“The number of shooting incidents in the three years before the Belfast Agreement (1995-98) totalled 450. In the three years since (1999-2002), this total has almost doubled to 820. If that were not bad enough”, he continued, “the report’s bombing section is even worse. In the three years before the Agreement, there were 123 bombing incidents; in the preceding three years, it has increased to 561 – a fourfold increase. If we turn to the number of bombing devices used, we again see the obvious trend. The three years before, 156 devices used. The three years after, 699. More than a fourfold increase. Mr. Campbell said the latest figures proved beyond doubt that the Good Friday Agreement was a “failure”.
Trimble was the issue of the time:
“It is outrageous that Mr Trimble should have had to subject himself roughly twice a year to what amounted to a leadership vote. He has survived by moving closer and closer to the dissidents, but the price of survival is too high. The compromise he has now agreed is in some respects worse than an out-right surrender.
“His chief challenger, Jeffrey Donaldson, left him in place as a lame-duck leader. Mr Trimble’s authority within the UUP, and the respect he had earned outside it, have alike been undermined. And in policy terms, the fiasco has made the supposed objectives of completing decommissioning and disbandment of the IRA less likely, not more so.”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty