UUP leaving the executive: anti agreement unionism for slow learners

So the UUP have finally done something exciting and left the Executive (or at least will
once their own party executive rubber stamps the decision). The internal unionist politics of this: both why it was a politically good idea and the potential ramifications are significant and worth a separate blog (which I may get to at some point). For the meantime, however, looking from a pan unionist point of view why this matters is also important.

There have always been essentially three unionist reasons to oppose the current dispensation at Stormont: the latter two, but not the first, the UUP have seemingly now adopted.

The first reason is simply some modification of not having a fenian about the place. This can be glossed over to varying degrees and given a certain pseudo veneer suggesting that only people loyal to a state should be allowed a part in its governance. These sorts of ideas may once have been common in Northern Ireland but it is really not one but two generations since any serious political person within unionism even hinted at such a position.

It may serve republicans interests to claim that such policies are behind the current moves at Stormont but that is really a thread bare argument and involves assorted strawmen and ascribing to people positions exactly opposite to what they have said repeatedly over years.

The two serious unionist criticisms of the Belfast and subsequently St Andrew’s Agreements centre around, firstly the extent to which the IRA had gone away, and secondly the structure of the devolution settlement.

The first power sharing deal between Trimble and the SDLP was always fatally undermined by the failure of the IRA to disarm and cease to exist. Time after time Trimble repeated mantras of the “No guns No government” type and then he conceded. Then we had “We have jumped Mr Adams now it is your turn” followed by a distinct lack of republican jumping but further Trimblic leaping.

This more than anything else undermined Trimble against his critics both within and without the UUP. Indeed he clearly became the weak link whom the Blair government pushed into one humiliating compromise after another. Most within the UUP realised this was a recipe for disaster but repeatedly Trimble managed to get slightly more than 50% of the party to back him; though by the end that was more blind loyalty and weary resignation than any actual enthusiasm for his leadership.

After the unionist electorate finally grew tired of the hapless Trimble, the DUP tried. The DUP’s St Andrew’s deal was meant to be better and to an extent it was. The republican movement signed up to the rule of law and supporting the police. This may have been less than wholehearted and subsequent events have shown that it was at times highly partial, but it was a major coup for the DUP. Unfortunately the words hid a more serious problem: Dr. Paisley demanded decommissioning and that it be done in a transparent fashion. Unfortunately, although he was made of sterner stuff than Trimble it transpired that if Trimble’s rock solid guarantees were made of treacle Paisley’s were composed of blancmange.

The publicly verifiable decommissioning was to be overseen by General John de Chalastain and witnessed by Fr. Alex Reid and Rev Harold Good. This triumvirate should have been seen by any sensible unionist or neutral outsider as a woeful group. John de Chastelain had already been strongly criticised for his part in the cover up of the murder of Somali civilians by white supremacist Canadian soldiers during a UN mission to Somalia. Fr Reid, although no doubt a man of peace himself, had a long history of accepting anything the IRA told him whilst Rev. Harold Good was a former leader of Corrymeela and no doubt felt it his “duty” to support anything he deemed expedient to further “the process”.

Certainly there was no one whom a remotely sceptical outsider could regard as a neutral or impartial witness, nor willing to stand up and say that the decommissioning was partial or that he feared this might be so. As an aside the failure of the media to take to task de Chastelain, Reid and Good after this latest murder (and the previous finds of semtex) has been a major failing. Where now the legitimate questioning of Good’s vainglorious claim:

In light of this, and in order to create universal confidence, we wish to assure everyone, but especially those in Northern Ireland who may yet have misgivings, that the decommissioning of the arms of the IRA is now an accomplished fact.

This then was the basis of one of the central criticisms of the agreements by unionists. The IRA’s decommissioning was simply not verifiable as complete, its extent was completely unknown, the mechanics of it shrouded in a mystery itself covered by the supposed bona fides of individuals with a track record of, at best naivety and being wilfully oblivious, and at worst possible mendacity. Yet the solemn pronouncements of this bizarre group was accepted by Dr. Paisley, who a scant few weeks before was calling for verifiable decommissioning.

That utter failure of decommissioning of course should be set beside the complete failure of the loyalists to decommission even on the IRA’s clearly dishonest and partial scale. The failure of the unionist politicians to call long and hard for this decommissioning can and should be described as what it is – gross hypocrisy which has undermined their claims to be wholly opposed to loyalist violence. They are of course also accused by some over their involvement in the likes of Twaddell but that can be more readily excused. Unionist leaders wish to stand with their communities and should not be scared away by loyalist thugs also present. That justification may not be acceptable to nationalists and republicans but is largely seen as reasonable by unionists. The failure over calling loyalist terrorists on decommissioning is more serious.

Until last week it might have been suggested that the weapons issue was of lesser relevance. The number of IRA murders had actually been thankfully low and a number of those that had occurred were more due to the inherent thuggery of the IRA’s members: it did not take firearms to kill Paul Quinn or Robert McCartney.

The other major unionist criticism of the agreements has always been the intellectual one which, whilst intellectual, has been shown to have significant practical relevance: that is that the unique form of government visited upon us, has been singularly useless.

The interlocking mutual vetoes of the petitions of concern may have been designed to protect one community from dominance by another but has allowed both sides to stymie all sorts of issues of limited relevance to their whole community. Criticism of individual ministers can be prevented even if objectively reasonable.

Of greatest concern has been the use or threat of use of the petitions of concern over social matters. The DUP have threatened to use the PoC if necessary to stop homosexual marriage whilst SF and others have threatened to use it to stop the conscience clause. Thereby these social issues have actually become more controversial and have been brought into the maelstrom of orange greenery; opening up whole new areas of sectarian strife.

The one party which can be held more honourable in this regard has been the SDLP which voted “against its own side” on Jim Allister’s bill to stop convicted criminals being SPaDs by refusing to sign the PoC. Sadly, however, it is doubtful that the SDLP would be willing to refuse a PoC on more overtly orange green issues.

The PoC’s are not, however, the central problem. Democracies always suffer if there is a lack of an opposition: indeed one could question to what extent they are democracies at all. It is noteworthy that one of the early steps to Mugabe’s dictatorship of Zimbabwe was uniting his party and the main opposition one, hence, ending the existence of a formal opposition.

An opposition can hold the government to account on all manner of issues even if its chances of being able to form the government are extremely low. Furthermore there would have been options to have oppositions in the agreements. Unionists favoured weighted majorities but SF were worried it would result in a government with all the parties but them. That might easily have been forestalled by having the largest party of each of the blocks in government.

Of course initially there was something of an attempt at opposition by Alliance until their leader, after having claimed several times he would refuse the justice ministry, rapidly put his snout into the trough. The truffles of power seem to attract Alliance politicians just as much as anyone else.

The final and arguably most serious failing is the lack of collective cabinet responsibility. During the coalition in Westminster we saw that two parties can and do have proper cabinet government. No doubt there were bitter arguments within cabinet but when a policy was agreed on, it was supported, to a greater or lesser extent, by the whole cabinet. In NI we have had not even a hint of this approach with ministers having solo runs on all manner of issues and one party not merely confidentially briefing against, but openly attacking decisions made by a supposed cabinet colleague. This, possibly more than anything, has contributed to the continuous sense of crisis the Stormont and the quite obvious fact that it is still very much a battle a day.

All of these problems were foreseeable and to a greater or lesser extent all might have been solved before power sharing was set up. The villains of the piece, and indeed peace, are many and varied. Trimble was an utterly woeful negotiator; he was continuously brow beaten and bullied by the British government. Sometimes his opponents within the UUP (and certainly those in the DUP) were more interested in personal self advancement than making the agreements better. The republican movement showed a continual lack of good faith, whilst the SDLP never seemed particularly willing to help Trimble (his personality may not have helped there).

When the DUP took over, again they were brow beaten by the governments: as I have noted previously Dr. Paisley was by that time a diminished figure but still it seems his personal wish for power was one of the biggest problems. Perhaps more than anything, however, Tony Blair squandered the chance of a proper agreement gifted to him by the IRA ceasefires. Never a man over interested in detail nor in the long term he was, ironically, utterly obsessed with his legacy: the more so after the debacle of Iraq.

In that he was completely determined to get a deal during his time in office. Strangely in mainland GB despite all that has happened Blair still gets plaudits for Northern Ireland. If the agreement collapses it is to be hoped a better agreement will arise from the ashes. However, if that helps demonstrates the failure of one of Blair’s few remaining “successes” it would be a side benefit. That it has taken the murder not merely of one person but actually the dozens killed by the assorted terrorists and the lives ruined by their criminality is no “kerfuffle”.

If now, for whatever reasons, the UUP have joined the ranks of those opposed to the agreement that is also to be welcomed. It seems the current crisis is anti agreement unionism for slow learners.

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  • chrisjones2

    Dream on

  • chrisjones2

    I don’t see the McGuigan murder in that light

    Murder is murder

  • chrisjones2

    Joint sovereignty is just a republican wet dream. Noone wants it – least of all the South

    And the legal position is simple. If Stormont folds London takes over. Period. The Irish have a consultative role as per the GFA. That is it.

  • chrisjones2

    Neither are in power any more.Both are is utterly discredited. One a lying warmonger and the other a man who didn’t even have a bank account. Both were desperate to secure their legacy

    Cameron will have no interest in Joint Sovreignty and even if he did any deal would take years to negotiate

  • chrisjones2

    “Direct rule is a return to the past, the Tories do not want that.”

    Noone does but if SF dont play the democratic game and stop lying what are Unionists to do?

  • chrisjones2

    Again joint authority is a wet dream. The law is clear. Power reverts to London. NI is part of the UK. Period

  • chrisjones2

    “I am wrong that some protestants don’t view Catholics as Christians?”

    Of course that is true. Every religion has its loonies. The Fee Ps are one set. Then you have the offshoots like Westboro Baptist

    And many of the Catholic ones are institutionalised in the Vatican. For example

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/jul/11/catholicism.religion

    although Pope Frank seem to be making more open overtures

    All of this is a function of the nature of any religious cult. You have to create rules to separate your brand from theirs and show it is ‘better’

  • chrisjones2

    “The Tories hardly seem to care if Scotland leaves the Union”

    That is just plain wrong. The real question is why they should care. Thats what is most relevant to NI

  • chrisjones2

    “it may fracture Unionism in to pieces, see the emergence of a NI21 type of Unionism, pragmatic and accepting that their political focus should only be on this Island.”

    Again a nationalist wet dream. The reverse is much more likely. And you assume again and again that Catholic = Nationalist. It simply doesn’t and there are lots of Catholic Unionists. A more likely scenario is that Unionism unites and broadens its base but with a lot of pain along the way and the loony religious DUP Fringe spun off to something like UKIP. Their age profile will help in that process!!!

  • Gingray

    Chris
    I agree with you here, but I’d say, purely anecdotally that extreme views on the nationalist side stem from political positions rather than religious.

    The 11,000 free Presbyterians make up a third of the mlas on the unionist side, with other evangelical groups well represented.

    Unlike Turgon, I think people who strongly believe in their faith may find it difficult to go against it. And if said faith says your opponents follow the anti christ and are going to hell, it’s surely understandable that the some in the evangelical wing of unionism have always been opposed to treating catholics as equals.

    Turgon claims this has changed – I’ve asked for examples of how

  • Janos Bingham

    Ah yes, ‘Foe-Hammer’. Now resting in the vaults of Minas Tirith I believe.

    Although it could be put to good use locally. Plenty of Orcs to smite in these parts – if only Gandalf was available..

  • Turgon

    No. You are erecting straw men.

    It is not for me to demonstrate what has or has not changed.

    It is for you to point out a political position adopted by an individual unionist or individual unionists, based on religion, whereby they have treated Catholics as less equal.

    If you cannot do that you are simply making slurs against a whole group of people (unionist politicians). This is precisely what I mentioned in the opening post. Some try to pretend that unionist politicians are adopting a “no fenian about the place” position but to say that one has to claim they mean the opposite to what those self same politicians have been saying for decades.

    It is a dishonest slur. Now put up or shut up. Which unionist politician has, based on religion, treated Catholics as less equal in say the last 20 years. While you are at it remember the laws of libel.

  • Turgon

    Actually I was always attracted to Turgon by his wisdom etc. and the tragic story of his wife’s death, rather than military process for which his father and brother (Fingon) were more known. Still good to know that my alter ego had a nice sword.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Fair point Chris. I’ve no evidence he “detests” NI, but it is the case that he’s totally disinterested, and I can see why. When do you hear NI mentioned in the national news? How many times does Cameron appear in our neck of the woods? No one genuinely gives a monkeys about us anymore because we are laughable. The only people that take NI “seriously” are the self interested clowns in Stormont. We’ve had many years of these tw*ts and they acomplish absolutely nothing. Groundhog Day again, again and again. We count for nought in the great scheme of things, neither nationally or globally.

  • Steve Larson

    That seems to be the impression in Britain and the Tories have done nothing to change that in the last few years.

    Their actions in the days after the referendum were a massive boost to Scottish nationalism and a slap in the face to the Better Together campaign. Add in EVEL and they are playing a great game in finishing the Union.

    The Tories are making themselves the owners of English nationalism and that is an engine that will run on its own steam for a long time.

  • Steve Larson

    Personally I’d welcome a year of direct rule as I think that Unionism’s never never political land will take a hard beating because of it, same as it always does when it acts like this.

    No one doubts that SF are playing the democratic game. The PSNI do not, the British Govt. do not,the DUP do not, so why are the UUP playing games?

    Under a year to an election.

  • Steve Larson

    I don’t know why they should care and I haven’t seem many Tories outside of Scotland trying to figure it out.

    I’ve seen a lot who couldn’t care either way and a lot who can’t wait for the Scots to leave.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The SDLP took a stance, if its voters thought it was taking the SF whip they would have voted for the latter or against it all together.

    Though not voting is no proof of caring, indeed the SF went down at the last election too.

    Many nationalists who suffered at the hands of the Provisional movement had no reason to share the SDLP’s concern about a SPAD getting an early pension & a right to appeal and would have wanted the party to vote for the SPAD bill, but it didn’t. Many civil servants aren’t even guaranteed to get as much if their early redundancy scheme collapses, they’ll just get laid off.
    Indeed other SPADs may even get less of a pension.

    Also the SDLP vote in Foyle, the home seat of the SPAD in question increased at the last election.

    I’ll leave saving bacon to the Agriculture minister and judge her accordingly.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Since when was not lying a part of the democratic game? Show me a politician whose lips move who does not lie!

  • David McCann

    A little close to the bone there. “Play the ball, not the man”

  • Janos Bingham

    Much as I would enjoy a discussion on the many and varied qualities of the Noldor it would take the thread way off piste; not to mention having it look like a script from an episode of ‘The Big Bang Theory’. 😉

  • Turgon

    I don’t know it would be no more surreal than many a discussion here and possibly better tempered. Anyhow it’s my thread so I will say that I was going to call myself Fingolfin as I so admired his final charge and battle with Morgoth as well as his foresight knowing the Noldorian cause was lost but still a willingness to fight.

    He was a bit too military for me and the first bit of Tolkien I ever read was the coming of Tuor to Gondolin and I have been fascinated by it ever since. I suspect it is something of an allegory of heaven: granted that it fell in the end so maybe more a Camelot.

    As such the idea of the wiser ruler of a hidden happy kingdom appealed.

  • npbinni

    Well, David, I was only applying a phrase he used for others. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

  • Janos Bingham

    For me it would have to be Gil-galad. His kingship, his friendship and aid to other elves and men, his long battle against Sauron; which ultimately cost him his life.

    Although that being said I also admire Beleg Cúthalion. Not perhaps one of the ‘great’ elves, yet he guarded the elves’ borders for many years and was one of their leading captains.

    However it is his steadfast friendship for Túrin, a Man, that stands out the most. Despite the difficulties such a friend as Túrin must have caused, Beleg always supported him and went into the wild on his behalf.

    To be accidentally killed by this friend in the end must mark Beleg as one of Tolkien’s most tragic, yet also most honourable, characters.