“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.”

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