Time for unionists to display their faith in agreements

If you haven’t read it and you need some refreshment on how people felt the morning the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement was signed eleven years ago, get a copy of Rebel Columns by Danny Morrison and check out the first piece for a sustained controlled piece of writing on the euphoria of that day. Better still, get a hold of a recording of Radio Ulster’s output for warm cross community congratulations. The past is indeed a strange country. In today’s Irish Times Frank Millar has a sobering message for those unionists who still believe that this powersharing agreement was about re-instigating majority rule via the back door…

Even while they “share” power, too many on both sides appear in a state of denial about the nature of the enterprise, and the compromise, to which they have signed up. Robinson, naturally, won’t be raising a toast to the original deal negotiated by David Trimble and Séamus Mallon. DUP mythology requires us to see the St Andrews Agreement as the alternative to the Good Friday accord, rather than its natural offspring.

In the end Sinn Féin effectively killed off Trimble’s Ulster Unionist leadership, Gerry Adams concluding that the deal with Paisley was the one that would stick. Sinn Féin’s mythology, on the other hand, requires at least the party’s own supporters to believe that nothing about this settlement is intended to stick and that Northern Ireland remains in “transition” toward a united Ireland. This in turn fuels the arrogance of those in the DUP who behave as if the unionist majority has been restored at Stormont, their mission seemingly to deny Sinn Féin at every turn.

From the so-called “moderate” sidelines, likewise, comes only a succession of discordant, unhelpful and confusing noises. The SDLP might be up for a celebration of the Belfast Agreement, yet that party too seems in denial about the nature of the settlement, locked as it is in a presumably doomed struggle to out-green Sinn Féin.

Sourness and disillusion at finding itself supplanted informs the persistent SDLP charge that Sinn Féin is routinely out-negotiated by the DUP. Some displaced and unhappy Ulster Unionists, likewise, seem ready to carve a defeat from their previously claimed victory – questioning the sincerity of Sinn Féin’s commitment to the democratic path while contemplating, with their new Conservative allies, a “voluntary coalition” model to replace compulsory power-sharing.

He goes on to note that those keen to clip to a voluntary coalition are getting somewhat ahead of themselves, and are in danger of forgetting just why the Belfast Agreement and its ancillary antecedent’s were so necessary in the first place…

Peter Robinson made a powerful speech in the Assembly on taking his office as First Minister, when he hoped “that the sons and daughters of the Planter and Gael have found a way to share the land of their birth and live together in peace”.

As Millar goes on to note, the ownership the current framing of that settlement lies with unionists of all shades and none:

It is unclear whether unionists collectively are guilty of laziness or some dishonesty. What can be said of some is that there is a significant discrepancy between their demeanour and the position they have separately and collectively articulated, namely that – while rewriting the rules for its governance within the union – the Belfast and St Andrews agreements have secured Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

The unionists should start behaving as if they believe it, and act accordingly in terms of their approach to the republican and nationalist communities. For what must also be said is that the onus for maintaining a settled and stable Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom rests with them. Nobody else is going to do their job for them.

That does not mean forcing nationalism back to a time when famously the only nationalist originating piece of legislation through the old Stormont was on bird conservation.

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