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.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.