Almost 20 years ago now the academic community in Northern Ireland first began looking at the concept of Protestant Alienation. Amongst the factors they identified were the feeling that the Hume Adams talks were creating a blueprint for the defeat of unionism which the British government might acquiesce to. That feeling of alienation increased with events such as the IRA ceasefire. Looking back it is now easy to read the IRA ceasefire as a victory for unionism: the IRA had been comprehensively infiltrated to the extent that RUC Special Branch knew about large numbers of the more complex terrorist operations and were able to thwart most. The arrest of the IRA sniper in South Armagh was clearly intelligence led and if highly valued IRA terrorists could not even operate with impunity but rather were arrested in their South Armagh stronghold then the game was truly up for the Provos.
Of course that is not how it looked at the time: rather it looked as if the IRA had arranged a deal with the British government and the sell out was underway. Throughout the protracted negotiations when Trimble was leader of the UUP and chief spokesman for unionism it looked as though the situation was poor for unionists. It was suggested that privately Trimble thought a united Ireland was inevitable and his role was to get as good a deal as possible for unionists. Whatever his reasons (probably mainly limited competence along with intra party dissent and the absence of help from the DUP) Trimble made one concession after another, crossed one line in the sand after another and all with the same bad tempered gracelessness which suggested that unionism was finished.
The story since the end of Trimble’s leadership has been much better: still far from perfect with the DUP entering power sharing with less concessions from republicans than unionists might have hoped; the Chuckle brothers and most recently the Hillsborough agreement bringing us the ongoing failure of David Ford as the Justice Minister who remains in post despite serial disasters and incompetence.
However, despite that the unionist community is much more confident than it was twenty years ago; has more faith in its leadership (Peter Robinson) than it had in Trimble and has a much more coherent forward looking narrative than it has for years.
All is not, however, completely well in the state of unionist confidence and there are still significant areas of alienation for unionists. Running alongside unionist confidence there are still large areas of disenchantment for unionists.
Although unionism has held to its core demands much better than republicanism (Ireland unfree will never be at peace; not a bullet not an ounce etc. etc.) the fact remains that unionists still see republicans trying to undermine the Britishness of Northern Ireland. Most of these attempts are cosmetic and indeed symbolic but the symbols are important. There are continual attempts by republicans to use claims of parity of esteem to describe even the most vaguely and tangentially pro unionist symbols as unacceptable such as the attempts to remove the statue of a Prime Minister of New Zealand from Limavady council. At the same time again claiming parity of esteem republicans perform stunts such as the attempt to worship Mairead Farrell at Stormont.
A plaque commemorating those murdered in the Enniskillen bombing was removed from Enniskillen Fire Station and has still not been returned despite the Ombudsman’s Office condemning the move. At the same time republicans put up assorted shrines to terrorists throughout Fermanagh and elsewhere with little care to the views of anyone. Since these shrines lack any planning permissions etc. there is no mechanism to object to their creation and few would be foolhardy enough to contemplate removing them.
Where unionists have really lost out, however, is on the revisionist analysis of the past. In part this defeat on the past is part and parcel of unionism’s ongoing victory of the present and probably future. So dominant have the DUP become and so strong is their moving forward narrative (the civic unionist wing of the UUP is also very “moving forwards” focused) that they find it more difficult to fight the seemingly trivial battles each and every time republicans try to rewrite the history of The Troubles. Constantly obsessing about individual incidents of the past and the behaviour of individuals and groups does not play well to a narrative of moving forwards. This is especially true in interviews: whilst the unionist spokespersons can usually present a more coherent, practical and realistic message about a given forwards looking issue, they find it difficult simultaneously to fight the minutiae of specific incidents of the past and even more difficult to point to the vast numbers of incidents of republican barbarity.
This problem creates a significant degree of irritation and ongoing alienation within the unionist community especially in the areas most affected by the Troubles. The idea that the Security Forces were involved in organised systemic collusion has been rejected by every enquiry but still republicans claim it happened. Indeed when enquiries find that there was no collusion this is presented by republicans as further evidence of collusion. Such narratives are produced so frequently that unionists’ spokespersons often seem to tire of pointing out how untrue these claims are. They also shy away from stating what practically all the evidence shows: namely that collusion was limited to a very small number of individuals; truly a few rotten apples. However, that suggestion has been attacked so frequently and with such vehemence by republicans, practically always with little or no evidence, that unionists have become dispirited in defending the forces of law and order. When they do make such a defence republicans point to one of a small number of incidents and individuals which is then claimed to “prove” that collusion was rife.
The unionist narrative of the Troubles is that the police and army tried at times desperately to hold Northern Ireland together whilst the IRA conducted a sectarian campaign of killing and bombing. Simultaneously the forces of law and order managed to thwart many of these attempts to bring Northern Ireland to its knees and were also even more effective at stopping the murder campaigns of the loyalist terrorists. Meanwhile the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s citizens whatever their political views opposed the violence and mayhem inflicted on society by the terrorists and tried to get on with their normal lives. Most of us went to school and work; grew up; got married, raised families; retired and died of old age. Normality was a mechanism of defeating terrorists and the only and most effective weapon most of us had. This is why republicans (and loyalists) are so resistant to the suggestion that society was relatively normal here during the Troubles.
Initially the RUC were almost overwhelmed and the British Army in the early 1970s did end up fighting gun battles on the streets. Remarkably quickly, however, the terrorists were pushed back; the no go areas were entered and although normal policing was not possible the terrorists did not have complete run of “their own” areas. There were flare ups of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s but each time the violence was less bad than it had been in the previous exacerbation. Gradually the overwhelming normality of most of Northern Ireland for most people most of the time became almost all the time, almost everywhere. Gradually the IRA were pushed back so even in South Armagh and south and west Fermanagh they were the hunted ones when they came out. Gradually even the responses to their terrorism became more normal policing orientated: the IRA sniper did not die in a hail of SAS bullets; he was arrested like the common criminal he was.
The above is the unionist narrative of the Troubles but it is the one which is less often promoted now especially within Northern Ireland. That is simply because unionist politicians want to talk about the future whereas it is republicans who obsess about the past.
One of the greatest sources of alienation is the way in which the RUC and UDR are denigrated by republicans and described at worst as Nazis and at best as an armed group. Once when unionist politicians were elected they made a point of thanking the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment for providing safety to the election. Too rarely now do we hear unionist politicians (and never our church leaders etc.) intoning the words Royal Ulster Constabulary and Ulster Defence Regiment with the honour even awe of their bravery and professionalism which almost all unionists feel they deserve.
Also irritating (as Normal Baxter has recently pointed out) is the fact that the PSNI’s roots in the RUC are inadequately honoured. The fact that the majority of the PSNI were in the RUC is deliberately ignored by republicans but at times seems almost forgotten by unionist politicians. Jeffery Donaldson used to be good at reminding people that the PSNI incorporated the RUC but more recently that has been heard too little.
Unionists feel that largely they won in the Troubles: by “they” and “won” what is meant is that those who believed in peaceful politics won and those attempts to bring Northern Ireland to civil war or an enforced united Ireland failed. Those who wanted a united Ireland by force failed and failed quite spectacularly. Indeed so complete has been republicans’ failure that they are now intent on rewriting the Troubles as an armed insurrection to ensure civil rights. What they claimed at the time was that the Troubles were about creating a 32 county socialist republic. In reality what most perceived their aim as, was a sectarian murder campaign to defeat the wishes of the majority of the people of all the island of Ireland and create a national socialist republic complete with nonsense about Gaels and other ethno racist gibberish.
Unionist politicians are correct to feel that moving forwards and giving people hope is the most important issue. However, care needs to be taken, especially in the communities most affected by the terrorism of the IRA, to ensure that the battle by the republican movement to rewrite the history of the past is defeated. Unionist leaders need to remember that although most of their electorate are fairly content with the current direction of political events they do not want to become alienated from their own past. To quote Macualy: “A people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendents.” Whilst winning the big picture is still the most important issue some time fighting in the trenches over the little issues must not be forgotten. The RUC’s victory over the terrorists was as much about helping lost tourists and stopping shoplifters as it was about catching terrorists: the little things still matter.