“That task falls to the party of the constitutional status quo”

On Let’s Talk, just after the last Westminster election, Arlene Foster took issue with me when I suggested that a future agreement bringing the DUP and Sinn Fein together in government could reasonably referred to as Belfast Agreement Mark II. Yet, if the new edition of Frank Millar’s study of David Trimble, The Price of Peace is to be believed, there is a remarkable continuity between the path first taken by the Trimblistas and the trail subsequently followed by Ian Paisley (the artist formerly known as Dr No).It’s easy at this juncture to forget where Unionism was as recently as 1990. John Hume, not Gerry Adams was a substantial object of unionist mistrust at that time. Millar notes that “Unionists generally believed that for him it must be ‘a united Ireland or nothing’ and would invariably interpret his talk of ‘an agreed Ireland’ as code for unity by other means”.

Further, he writes:

“…they were hopelessly indisposed to revise their thinking even after January 1990 when Hume set out the framework for what would become the Belfast Agreement eight long years later; dual referendums in which the people in the North and the people in the south would effectively copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s constitutional position and finally lay the basis for nationalist consent for the arrangements for policing of the state”.

The infamous threat of peace remark was not predicated on the idea that genuine peace would de-stabilise Northern Ireland but “they assumed that the proffered peace would prove to be predicated on a secret agenda developed by the British and the republicans during the long years of secret contacts conducted by intermediaries through back-channels the existence of which British ministers had always existed”.

With unionism in general in this radically disengaged, almost semi-paranoid state David Trimble took over the leadership of the largest Unionist party of the time. His claim to history, in part, “would be to engage in the process and keep his nerve long enough to help explode that particular myth.”

The author quotes one observer as saying, “Molyneaux and those guys were never serious about dealing and the only result of their strategy would have been more violence. This was Trimble’s genius. He understood that if the republicans were going to be politicised you had to do it now.”

Yet once the deal in April 1998 was clinched by the narrowest of unionist majorities, the sands of time and power began to slip away from the deal maker. First perhaps by his own incapacity to build and maintain an effective coalition. Millar, for instance, is convinced that “had Trimble managed his relationship with the troublesome Donaldson differently, the ensuing rebellion within his party would have proved less damaging and more quickly quelled”.

The eclipse began in November 2003 when the DUP overtook the UUP as the leading party in the now semi permanently suspended Assembly elections. It was completed barely two later in Westminster elections which left the Ulster Unionists with just one MP. The peace process torch passed on to the most unlikely Unionist peacemaker of them all. Millar notes, “Blair’s peace process was saved by an 81 year old Paisley similarly pre-occupied with “legacy” issues and the race against time”.

Sure there were differences between the deal done in Belfast in 1998 and that done in Scotland in 2006. But it was less the deal itself than the context that had changed. Critically, two things that had remained external to the Belfast Agreement, IRA decommissioning and Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the PSNI were complete before the restoration of the institutions in May 2007.

The ground Paisley found himself on was precisely that marked out, surveyed and largely made safe by David Trimble. Unionism’s long journey in the wilderness was over. They would finally cross the river Jordan without the man who’d led them (reluctantly for the most part) from a parlous state to somewhere altogether more confident:

“One of the paradoxes of the closing unionist era found Trimble – he of the red face and seemingly always angry – taunted for an alleged inability to show himself “a First Minister for all the people”, while it was a chuckling and avuncular Paisley who offended his people by appearing to enjoy power-sharing with Sinn Fein too much.

“Having made such an extraordinary political journey it made sense for Paisley to look comfortable in his own skin, confident about what he had done. Yet he was so convincing as to persuade some who never warmed to Trimble that Northern Ireland had to paraphrase President Clinton back in the 1998, finally turned the corner from a winter of darkness to a summer of hope.”

But to continue with a quasi religious theme, for all the progress and consolidation of the last ten years, Unionism has not found itself vouchsafed with unconditional election; limited atonement; or irresistible, if entirely secular, grace in perpetuity; although it may well require of them the full rigour of Calvin’s doctrine of the perseverance of saints. The last two paragraphs of the new edition conclude:

“It is true, as Trimble and Paisley contend, that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position has been settled around the principle of “consent”. Yet it is not the whole truth. Blair’s Irish Peace has also bequeathed the promise that questions about future constitutional change will henceforth be addressed by way of purely peaceful and democratic politics. Yet the questions have not gone away either. And it now falls to the new generation of unionist leaders in the post Trimble, post Paisley era to keep devising the answers.

“No more than the UUP before it need the DUP expect Irish republicans and nationalists to take and sustain the cross community initiatives and outreach necessary to stablise and secure Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. That task falls to the party of the constitutional status quo. And to meet it, the new DUP will have to reinvent itself all over again.”

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  • RepublicanStones

    Mick, haven’t read the book, but would it be fair to say that the threat of Plan B, turned ‘Doctor’ No into ‘Doctor’ Now. I guess we’ll never know.

  • Steve

    Sounds to me more like Dr. No was just a Dr. Yes looking for a place to happen.

  • Mick Fealty

    RS,

    I’ve never seen the evidence that Plan B ever existed, except in some feverish political imaginations, and as a convenient excuse for finally crossing the Rubicon (or was that the river Jordan?).

  • RepublicanStones

    Fair do Mick….but I love the grassy knolls.

    So if Ceaser, sorry ‘Doctor’ Now, crossed the rubicon, surely that makes Property Pete Brutus….and i thought i loved grassy knolls Mick.

  • DC

    Question is, is it easier to reinvent or start afresh?

  • Mark McGregor

    Unionism continually denied the victory it had won over major elements of Republicanism.

    A Unionist veto accepted, the principle of consent written in stone – these were achieved a decade ago.

    An absolute victory for Unionism and while the Paisleyistes didn’t achieve it, they are doing the one thing the UUP failed to do; celebrating and recognising it.

    The DUP didn’t win the fight but they claimed the crown.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    The unionists won and treated it as a loss, the republicans lost and treated it as a win.

    So now when the DUP talk about their ‘win’ at St. Andrews no one believes them.

  • Black and white

    Power is inherant in politics and that is what we are in politics for: POWER! If you want principle stay at church … i forgot Paisley was forced to resign 😉

  • flaminglip

    Because there wasn’t a United Ireland established, Unionists won? Is it really as simple as that?

  • George

    “No more than the UUP before it need the DUP expect Irish republicans and nationalists to take and sustain the cross community initiatives and outreach necessary to stablise and secure Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. That task falls to the party of the constitutional status quo. And to meet it, the new DUP will have to reinvent itself all over again.”

    That’s the key paragraph for me. Is the DUP up to the job of providing the necessary outreach for northern nationalists to be happy in a Northern Ireland skin?

    If Poots on the Irish language is any indicator, I don’t think so.

    But at least the DUP can’t say they haven’t been warned.

  • darth rumsfeld

    “The author quotes one observer as saying, “Molyneaux and those guys were never serious about dealing and the only result of their strategy would have been more violence. This was Trimble’s genius. He understood that if the republicans were going to be politicised you had to do it now.” ”

    Er, but that was precisely Molyneaux’s genius.
    He didn’t want the republicans politicised because then there were inside the tent, able to rearrange the furniture in all sorts of irritating ways. The long view would say that Republicans would sooner or later become disillusioned by lack of impetus (they did) and would be unable to retain membership or focus, while spectaculars like Enniskillen would alienate their own community. Violence was on a downward trend and would have petered out sooner rather than later.

    What Molyneaux couldn’t have known- and indeed noone really does, except for a few spooks- is how much the IRA had been infiltrated and was being manipulated for British high politics, which clearly sought an agreed disengagment via joint authority. Of course properly controlled agents could equallly have collapsed the organisation from within, and fulfilled Molyneaux’s strategy, if it had been shared by Whitehall.

    Trimble didn’t bring Unionism in from the wilderness; he just paid the danegeld ( and too much too easy many would argue), and as a result there is a new phase of conflict- war by other means. Now quality of life for us all is better and noone’s getting killed many will argue that a result has been achieved. But that ignores the fact that we could easily be back to square one if “50% minus one” day arrived and republicanism reverted to type, or if some unforeseen Drumcree type crisis arose- with far worse consequences.

    Ecstatic though I am to see Mick’s knowledge of the Five Points of Calvinism, I wonder why he omitted reference to the first-total depravity.Perhaps a bit difficult to fit in to the analysis without referring to the DUP’s coalition partners?

  • Dewi

    “I’ve never seen the evidence that Plan B ever existed, except in some feverish political imaginations, and as a convenient excuse for finally crossing the Rubicon (or was that the river Jordan?). ”

    Paisley was vehemenent about Plan B when interviewed by Nolan. Said that’s the ony reason he signed up.

  • Paul

    Darth

    But that ignores the fact that we could easily be back to square one if “50% plus one” day arrived and Unionism reverted to type

    Although we all expect the bastions of democracy to accept the will of the people, so maybe a moot point.

  • Slugger O’Toole Admin

    Darth,

    Hands up: that one just buzzed past my (small ‘p’ papish) eyes in flash. I think the Freudians have a term for that.

    Just been texted the cover of this book: http://url.ie/bp5. Someone more theologically literate that me has obviously picked up your remarks.

  • Ahem

    It can’t be said often enough – the two agreements *aren’t* the same. The first agreement – Trimble’s agreement – didn’t work. As both cause and consequence of its failure was the unambiguous fact that Trimble could not make the Provos sign up to it. Whereas, the DUP were able to stick it to the Provos and indeed make them do all the things they had hitherto refused to do (and, in their refusal to do so, had been supplied plenty of flanking support by fools like John Hume, cf. slurred rhetoric about the hallowed excuse, sorry, ‘tradition of the pike in the thatch’ etc etc).

    Certainly the difference between two agreements – one failed, one viable – is nothing like what the DUP claimed to its more gullible supporters it would be, in advance of that second one being achieved. However, for any lingering Turtle cultists out there – the first agreement did not fail because the DUP made it fail. It failed in part because it was poorly negotiated, and, by Trimble, administered still worse. In slightly larger part because Trimble patently lacked the wherewithal (political nous, capital, skill, determination) to inflict real political pain on the people who were overwhelmingly responsible for it failing. But chiefly it failed precisely because of those recalcitrant non-players, the Provos, absolutely refusing to discharge even the de minimis obligations placed upon them, via [sic] Sinn Fein, under “Agreement A”. Compare and contrast Trimble’s non-implementation of his agreement, with the plentiful hoops the DUP have been able to make the Provos jump through under their variant.

    The as yet unwritten narrative of the history of the Process is just how good a deal, for themselves, Republicans through away by not playing ball with Trimble rather more intelligently.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t like either agreement, but I accept that from a Unionist standpoint the second one is much, much better than the first one.

  • Ahem

    3rd par: ‘Threw‘ not ‘through’. NPAL.

  • George

    Ahem,
    it failed precisely because of those recalcitrant non-players, the Provos, absolutely refusing to discharge even the de minimis obligations placed upon them

    It seems to me that what you are, in essence, saying is that the Agreements are the same but that the DUP made it work by forcing the Provos to discharge their obligations.

    How Northern Ireland should be governed (mandatory coalition) and how a united Ireland could only come about (principle of consent) are pretty much the exact same in both Agreements. The rest is window dressing.

    The most that the DUP can claim is not that it changed the Agreement but that it made the Provos discharge the obligations unionists perceived them to have under the Agreement.

  • x

    Darth,

    The reason total depravity was left out is clear, as it’s a protestant philosophy, it surely only really applies to “protestants”. So, the real total depravity seen over the last 10 years is the depravity of the DUP and those once so “anti argeement unionists”, who for no principle gain, accepted the St Andrews arrangements and dived headlong into the trough.

    Power corrupts but at least it pays the bills!

  • Ahem

    Not at all George – the first agreement didn’t work at the fundamental level it had to, in order for it to be tolerable to Unionists: the Provos being disarmed.

    Umpteen helpful types, from Reynolds to Hume to the stupider sort of media pinko (Jon Snow, take a bow), intoned to Unionism that it was being ‘unrealistic’, and that this was a ‘side issue’ that we were ‘exploiting’ as a ‘pre-condition’ (the drift of this argument being, I think, that, ‘shure you know it’s never going to happen, so is this is all just senseless delaying tactics by you lot, vainly trying to postpone the inevitable’).

    When, in fact, as the DUP have demonstrated, it was all too achievable as a result of sustained pressure on the inherently weak Republican position. As to why Republicanism is in such a dire place, here’s the mildest of hints. Grassin’ Gez n’ Murderin’ Mart used to have to, for instance, cross the border rolled up inside a carpet, while now they’re opnely flown business class (at British taxpayer expense …) – they not merely *can’t* go back to ‘war’ at the ‘military’ level, at a very profound personal level, they don’t want to.

    But clearly I have to repeat myself: the difference between the two agreements is that the first ‘agreement’ wasn’t an agreement at all. For only one side was doing what it had agreed to. When Paisley was substituted for Trimble, Republicans were very quickly, and very effectively brought to heel. Ask yourself only this – why did they delay for so long? Why did they hold out against decomissioning, or any of the other many aspects of the Agreement they weren’t implementing? A sense of fun or mischief? A desire to have Big Ian as First Minister? Or, in due course, the Punt follow him? Of course not – Republicans failed to do what they were supposed to under the first Agreement because they had grown cocky, and had thought they were going to get away with having their cake and eating it.

    More fool them, and now they can lump the further indignities the process is going to inflict upon them. But then that’s the price you pay for not merely starting ‘wars’, but rather more pertinently, losing them.

  • darth rumsfeld

    Sorry ahem, but I’m with george. The Morris Marina may have had a respray and a new eight track cassette player and fluffy dice, but it’s still the same old clapped out heap of junk as it was in 1998

    x- no argument from me!

    dewi- plan b has been used on all obstreporous Unionist leaders from Carson on- perhaps even in the 19th century. It’s always been a bogeyman- Saunderson’s answer is still the best- “it may pass the House of Commons, but it’ll never pass the bridge at Portadown”. Paisley used to know this

  • Ian

    Mick:

    “back-channels the existence of which British ministers had always existed”

    Shouldn’t that read “…had always denied”?