SOAPBOX – The NI peace process is under threat: here’s how we save it

Scott Moore is an activist for a secular society with an interest in politics and institutional reform. He is currently a sixth former at Strabane Academy and is writing in a personal capacity.

There can only be one way to allow a Northern Ireland party to enter a coalition at Westminster. At least, while protecting the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.

Accession to such a coalition must surely depend on cross-party approval, and require a cross-community vote in the NI Assembly. A vote the parties can repeat if the DUP acts out of individual party self-interest.

This measure would ensure that any NI party in a Westminster coalition has to serve the interests of everyone in NI. Moreover, it protects the GFA at a time when it is already weak. It would help guarantee the British government’s status as an impartial chair of any talks.

Of course, no such cross-community vote is going to happen, never mind pass. The DUP might prop up a Tory government. But Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Greens and PBP will not. (I haven’t asked Claire Sugden!)

But that’s the way it should be.

This isn’t worth wrecking the peace process.

I would prefer a fresh election where Corbyn becomes prime minister … even though I don’t agree with him on everything. I’d like the chance of a reduced Brexit, even if it isn’t stopped outright. But anything is preferable to the monumental farce that faces us.

To me, it’s a no-brainer to say that the Good Friday Agreement is under threat right now.

Theresa May is seeking a deal with Arlene Foster to prop up the Tories’ numbers in the House of Commons. Jonathan Powell – the British government’s GFA negotiator – has warned of the consequences. The Tories may be “The Conservative and Unionist Party”, but mainstream British Unionism is a different kettle of fish to Ulster Unionism.

The principle of consent underpins Northern Ireland politics.

If a majority of people (as represented by our MLAs) want something here – a law or policy – then it happens. If not, it doesn’t. And in addition, if one community wants it but the other doesn’t, it doesn’t happen.

This deal could mean Theresa May grants the contents of the DUP’s wishlist. This would be in return for support in no confidence motions, Queen’s speeches, budgets and a hard Brexit.

There are items on the DUP wishlist that every other party here opposes. But if they’re still granted anyway, then that violates the principle of consent, and the spirit of the GFA.

You need only a history book to see the nationalist reaction to unionist favouritism. And vice versa. In our own context it will, in my view, guarantee that Sinn Féin will be the largest party at the next Assembly election. If not, it will certainly give nationalism a majority, both in terms of the number of seats and the number of votes. And when that happens, they will have a mandate for a united Ireland.

That is when we will have a serious question to deal with. The DUP have the word ‘Unionist’ in their name. If they cannot protect the Union, then as far as it concerns many people there is no point in them existing.

But the GFA obliges the Secretary of State to grant a Border Poll “when it has a reasonable chance of success”. There is no exact figure, like “a majority of Assembly seats”. They have worded it in a way which allows the British government to avoid calling a Border Poll. This is useful if, for any reason, they don’t want to do it – like if it’s inconvenient to do so.

If the Tories go ahead and call a Border Poll, the DUP’s position in government will be untenable for them. They will have to resign. The Tories will then have to call another general election. Both the Lib Dems and SNP have ruled themselves out of any deal with the Tories.

The Lib Dems lost the vast majority of their seats in 2015 for ‘getting into bed with the Tories’. Many English people are now discovering who the DUP are. The DUP’s seeming extreme, right-wing nature has shocked English voters. As has its endorsement by active paramilitaries in the weeks leading up to the election.

This comes when much of the press criticised Jeremy Corbyn for purported IRA links. The Lib Dems lost seats for ‘getting into bed with the Tories’. The Tories cannot expect it will turn out well for them after getting into bed with the DUP. I predict a Labour majority.

The other option is if the Tories don’t call a Border Poll. That action, more than any other, would amount to throwing the GFA out the window. Sinn Féin would be NI’s largest party at this stage. They signed up to the Agreement because it was a route to a united Ireland. They deemed the tools of the GFA more effective than the use of violence.

I am sceptical that the Republic of Ireland, as co-guarantors of the GFA, can save us from the Tory-DUP deal. As far as I’m concerned, forcing any Brexit on NI contravenes the principle of consent. The Irish government have been very pro-active in dealing with Brexit. But they have not called for the outright exclusion of NI – which is what we need.

It’s true that the Irish government may prove me wrong. They may kick up a fuss within the next week or two. But recently, they have proven ineffectual in my eyes. At least in challenging the British government for their failings in NI.

I generally do not engage in scaremongering. But it doesn’t take a genius to see civil unrest will ensue if the Tories don’t call a Border Poll if this gets too far. The focus of many will shift from saving Stormont to saving the peace process.

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  • Mike the First

    Well written piece, but:

    – the DUP isn’t entering coalition
    – it would be an bizarre violation of democratic principles, the devolution settlement across the UK and parliamentary sovereignty to prevent a party entering coalition until opposing parties in a regional assembly allowed them to do so
    – the principle of consent relates to the constitutional position of NI – not every government policy or position; the courts established recently it doesn’t even relate to EU membership
    – saying “the GFA is under threat” IS scaremongering, and Jonathan Powell is a partisan player who knows exactly what he’s doing

  • Redstar

    How can the Tories in any shape or form be regarded as neutral facilitators

    For example there’s no way that could chair talks for restarting the assembly

  • Korhomme

    We don’t yet know the full details of the DUP/Tory agreement. If the DUP demand that there is no border poll, and the Tories agree; this is a breach of the GFA, and is also an illegal act.

    A QC wrote, “Agreement with DUP not to hold a border poll would be unlawful and would put NI Secretary of State in conflict with paragraph 2 of schedule 1 of NI Act 1998”.

  • Muiris

    In politics, as in diplomacy, you don’t have friends, you have interests. The Tories have no interest in upsetting the GFA ( but may do so, through ignorance). Just as the DUP vote is a reaction to the Sinn Féin Assembly success, any ( even perceived) abuse by the DUP will cause the crocodile to bite back, and the ( demographic) crocodile is constantly growing.

    I do not believe that a border poll soon will succeed in the North ( and possibly not in the South either, truth be told). It would be very divisive, and in failing, would put back a UI by a generation.

    I think that SF/Nationalism should:
    1) Wait in the long grass
    2) Grow more grass

  • WindsorRocker

    Worked ok for Labour when Hain was threatening to outlaw academic selection and when Blair was handing out OTR comfort letters hand over fist.
    What all these people are really saying is that the Government has to be netural only when unionists might benefit.

  • Sprite

    This is a good idea. It could also work if SF were in a coalition government in Dublin. There isn’t going to be a border poll in the next 5 years. The gap between unionism and nationalism is still too large to justify it.

  • Redstar


    Nice try but no cigar

    If the unionists want their assembly back the best solution would be for a neutral chairman-maybe from abroad?

    Frankly many Nats have gave up on that nonsense anyway and we are quite happy to let the Dinosaur Unionist Party be solely responsible for the Tories cuts agenda.

    Cuts waiting lists et all-now solely brought to us by the Tory-DUP/UDA partnership

    We all know that the coalition of the crackpots won’t last-doomed to end in tears

  • Karl

    Unfortunately the peace process is dead. It was a missed opportunity to change minds and outlooks and build and shared society. It stopped the killing in the main and divided up the spoils on the basis of green and orange fiefdoms.
    Stormont too is over at least for this electoral cycle. Once the details of Brexit have been decided it may require another election to agree NIs response.
    SF will not go back until the DUP give them something tangible. Emboldened by their Westminster success the DUP wont. SF are quite happy to cut off the SDLPs last significant public forum and also return to the politics of protest against the Tories, brexit, austerity and thanks to Mays hubris, the DUP with real power.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    All very true Korhomme, but do you remember that scene in “The Night of the Generals” when Omar Sharif (Major Grau, Military intelligence) comes to arrest Peter O’Toole (General Tanz) for the murder of a prostitute and Peter, well he simply shoots him. The DUP are now potentially holding the political talking stick and it’s not as if Unionism has a record of ever doing anything which does not conform to its image of the world, so “legality” and consequences go hang. This is where Richard Kearney’s sensible suggestion for a proper joint-sovereignty solution in 1998 would have perhaps saved the day.

  • Korhomme

    Seaan, I haven’t seen that film, but I get the message.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Mike, I remember being sent a letter from a Stormont minister a while back. I’d raised significant points with over some serious breech by his department of policy guidelines. What I was told was that the minister and his department always have the discretion to overrule such guidelines. International agreements and laws are rather harder to overrule without serious challenge, I know, but where there’s a will, there’s always going to be a way.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    In fifty years of political engagement here and over the water I’ve seen far too many instances of arrogant, bare faced over-ruling of important things by politicians to entirely trust in the efficacy of law alone. It is our one protection, as I’m acutely aware, but law does depend on every side playing by the same rules to fully function. Neither the DUP nor Westminster have a credible track record on this when looked at over the perspective of a century. Lloyd George was not the only British minister to tell both sides utterly contradictory things at the same time.

  • Korhomme

    The English/British didn’t get the moniker ‘perfidious’ for no reason. The DUP see themselves as British — most definitely not Irish — so it’s no surprise that this descriptor applies to them as well.

  • Reader

    SeaanUiNeill: In fifty years of political engagement here and over the water I’ve seen far too many instances of arrogant, bare faced over-ruling of important things by politicians to entirely trust in the efficacy of law alone.
    And in the last 8 years you have seen the UK Supreme Court repeatedly slapping down the government. The game has changed.

  • hugh mccloy

    Well put artilce but i always have one question to people who say the peace process is at risk: who is going back to war and who will the targets be ?

    There will not be civil unrest becuase if people turn a gun in someome now because of their religion or political view there will be a bigger civil unrest against who pulled the trigger. If you want an example of this pre gfa sdlp.

    Lets face reality people here for years passively accepted even if they didnt support it the murder of their neighbour because they were a different religion. Those days are long gone 9/11 put to bed any attempts to romantise terrorism in the future on a global scale.

    19 years of a peace process we have had, there probably has been more murders in Dublin alone than in ni in that period.

    I am no dup supporter but these articles were in high demand when people dont like the outcomes of democracy, but would accept the outcome of democracy if the result suited them. These threats of going back to the old days are empty and tedious as the threat usually comes from people who call themselves progressive or liberal.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Interestingly, the term “perfidious Albion” appeared on the European horizon only after the hypocritical overthrow of James II, and his toleration policies. Everything begins somewhere.

  • Korhomme

    That’s fascinating; I wasn’t aware. Thanks!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ah, Reader, “Chinese balls”…..

    One example: we live in a very controlled society, where it has been almost impossible to set up a proper enquiry into sexual abuse because of how many of the apparently “suitable” legal world figures who might be expected to head such an enquiry finding that they are compromised in this matter through their links within the elite. I suppose it helps ones faith in British Justice if you have not encountered just how problematic any attempt to employ it to achieve any serious or meaningful goal actually is in practice, not least because of the networks which hobble meaningful action by anyone who is serious about having a successful career. But then, I’m a long term member of the Middle Temple Historical Society and have many friends (and family) in Chambers around Fleet Street, so, as usual, I hear little fragments of what is actually being said on the ground. The administration still controls patronage and is giving as good as it gets it seems (at least anecdotally). I stand entirely by my earlier comments, the shiny new UK Supreme Court not withstanding.

  • hugh mccloy

    Then that would be true too if sf pushed for one in Dublin?

  • Korhomme

    If you mean SF in NI, I guess so.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    It become a really big trope with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), where Britain had previously negotiated a peace in 1711 which was entirely beneficial to themselves, but without any consultation with their military allies. In it they ignored every issue over which they had entered the original alliance, other than to demand national trade benefits from Spain, particularly an entire monopoly of the “Asiento” or slave trade with the Spanish Colonies world wide. This was one of the planks of British prosperity in the eighteenth century,

    But it reflected earlier shocked attitudes in all the Courts of Europe at the entirely cynical overthrow of James II, something which had suggested that British self-interest was more than prepared to go well beyond those generally accepted moral rules perceived as necessary for Christendom to function internationally. Voltaire’s witty “Le Siècle de Louis XIV” is an interesting read on all of this.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “We all know that the coalition of the crackpots won’t last-doomed to end in tears.”

    But they can both do a lot of serious damage to our fragile agreements in the meanwhile.

    And in the meantime “il faut cultiver notre jardin”….

  • ted hagan

    And what about a coalition between Sinn Fein and, say, Fianna Fail, which has been talked about as a future possibility. As the Republic is a joint guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, would the same rules apply?


    Surely the same logic applies to SF entering a coalition government in ROI or FF running in NI, yet that is the stated intention of both parties. It renders ROI as a neutral broker impossible in the long term.

  • hugh mccloy

    Are there 2 different sf parties north and south?

  • Korhomme

    There’s one head honcho, but different leaders north and south.

  • Korhomme

    Again, fascinating; but it leads to a question. The ‘perfidous’ at the time of the ‘Glorious Revolution’/overthrow of James II presumably only referred to England.

    After 1707 there was ‘Great Britain’ who ‘negotiated’ the treaties you referred to. (I understand that ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’ really means ‘greater’, as in ‘greater London’ etc.)

    So is it GB who were perfidious, or does the epithet strictly only apply to England?

  • Korhomme

    The Establishment still in control, then?

  • hugh mccloy

    So same party then

  • Korhomme

    They operate in two separate polities, two separate states. SF might not publicly see it like that.

    Whether that makes them two parts of a single party, or two parties with a common interest is very much a matter of hair-splitting.

    Both the Tories and Labour also operate across two polities, though both are within GB. Are these two parties or one?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As David Byrne used to sing, “Same as it ever was…”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Historically “perfidy” appears to have been associated originally with England rather than Britain generally. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 raised cries in France of “ce perfide Anglois, gent cruel et barbare…” The term ran through the seventeenth century term, to be used by Madame de Sévigné and others in regard to the betrayal of James “d’ Angleterre…leur perfide Royaume.” Bossuet sighed, “L’Angleterre, ah! la perfidy Angleterre” in the eighteenth century. Balzac just under a century after Bousset spoke of “la machiavélique Albion.” Frederick the Great used the “Prefide Anglois” also, just to take us away from Paris. Altogether a heavy balance to England’s account.

    Although formally it may have been “Great Britain” at the negotiating table, the identity of the heavyweight in the matter was seldom in question it seems.

  • Korhomme

    Fascinating, thanks Seaan.

    You mention ‘Britain’ and ‘England’. I have wasted so many electrons and photons on arguments about this with the swivel-eyed on forums elsewhere.

    I get told that the proper name for the larger island is Britain, because Ptolemy (or whoever) said so; or that Great Britain refers to Brittany — ‘Greater Brittany’ — whence the English seem to stem from — even if they are a mixture of all sorts. Like Omar Khayyam, I come out not the much wiser. Is Britain a synonym for England, or is it something else?

    There seems to be much confusion about what England was and is (a union of Kingdoms, but don’t mention that); or that Scotland was another country until 1707, even if the English chopped off the King’s head.

    Then we get to ‘British values’. I still don’t know if these are the values of England, or Great Britain. And I’m even more confused by those in NI whose espoused values are so very different from ‘British’ ones. And, more recently, we get told that ‘GB’ is the same as ‘UK’ — ‘Team GB’ includes people who aren’t from GB. Haven’t most other countries overcome this existential difficulty?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But how did we all feel about the SDLP being Labour’s “sister party” when the GFA was being negotiated?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Indeed – and of course the SDLP was (is?) Labour’s “sister party” in N Ireland (often given as the main reason Labour would not field candidates in N Ireland – it already had them in the form of the SDLP). The same SDLP also had special access to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. You could argue that in the 80s and 90s, all outside players – British government and Irish government – had relationships with the SDLP that made them less than neutral brokers in N Ireland. It certainly felt that way as a unionist at that time – we were always on the back foot. The Irish government still has the default position of adopting basically the SDLP position on most N Ireland issues. Yet the mere hint that there might be unionist influence on anyone else is met with howls that this will upset the Peace Process. Gotta laugh …

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree, these threats are highly irresponsible. Some of May’s many detractors have lost the run of themselves in their keenness to finish her off. I think she should quit, her authority is shot; but in the short term someone has to form a government and this is the only way anyone can do it – there is no other solution the results offer her (or anyone else).

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Doesn’t sound like accepting the Britishness of your fellow citizens to me. Tut-tut – remember what the GFA says on that kind of stuff, it’s meant to be over, gone.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Powell, I think, is one of those people who rather over-intellectualise SF and take the politics side of their act rather too much at face value – and so misunderstand the whole ball game. I wonder if he’d lived in NI during the Republican reign of terror would he show such sang froid about it all. Something of a “clever fool” I think. The English intelligentsia has no shortage of them when it comes to analysis of N Ireland. So many of them just don’t have a gut feel for the place, or indeed for much of the UK periphery.

  • grumpy oul man

    does the SDLP have a history of sectarianism and working with terror groups, and is it still at both those things.
    i suspect that’s why there was no bad feeling about the SDLP and labour.
    but i suspect you knew and were just trying to muddy the waters.
    It must be a great disappointment to you to see how the British actually view unionists, so different from the narrative you push.

  • grumpy oul man

    Yes you gotta laugh, at somebody who tries to compare the democratic and peaceful politics of the SDLP and the sectarian ,terrorist linked politics of the DUP/UDA and thinks they should be treated the same.

  • Korhomme

    Define ‘Britishness’ and ‘British values’. And explain why values here and on the mainland differ even if they are supposed to be the same.

  • grumpy oul man

    define them please, they are very fluid for instance the people on the big island would think that NI form of Britishness of building big toxic dangerous bonfires and decorating them with the religious, political and cultural symbols of other people is not Very British at all,
    as for the GFA, the DUP/UDA going into partnership with a government that is supposed to be Neutral, sort of drives a coach and horses through it.
    the reaction of the people on the big island as they become aware of what the DUP/UDA really is don’t seem to think its very British!

  • grumpy oul man

    Which is what they will do, at the next GE, the DUP /UDA slogan “that we can be kingmakers” is gone as is the “our MPs are hugely respected in Westminster” .
    The best the DUP can hope for is that the whole deal collapses before the marching season is upon us!
    The thought of a DUP spokesman refusing to condemn the big bloody bonfires or trying to explain with a mix of Themmuns, whataboutry and Our Culture or trying to explain them away will be so amusing!
    the old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is not true.

  • hugh mccloy

    Recognition of the border, thats a new one

  • Barney

    The SDLP were not in any form of understanding or coalition to prop up the British government at that time.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    If they had been, would it have been a threat to the Peace Process?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Asking someone to justify their own nationality is not accepting it, it is patronising and insulting. Please catch up with where nationalism got to in 1998.

  • Barney

    This is just nuts, first Corbyn was portrayed as a liability, totally unelectable, is the red Tory line now that Powell is deluded? Imagine how well Corbyn would have done if the crypto Tories had backed him from the start.

    Powell is absolutely spot on in his analysis of the sordid “deal” the conservatives are trying to put together. The good people of Britain are now conflating Unionism with extreme right populism and until Irish Unionism elects some progressive figures they would be correct.

  • Barney

    The point is they were not

  • MainlandUlsterman

    OK let me put it differently: are you saying it was a problem that the UK government at that time was so closely linked to one of the main parties during the negotiation? I think we all accepted parties have links and sympathies but can still be fair facilitators of talks. We just keep a sharp eye out for them skewing the process.

  • Barney

    The point is HMG and the SDLP were not linked in any way now it looks like HMG and the DUP will be.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    This is no new line on Powell. John Bew has comprehensively taken apart Powell’s narrative of the Peace Process. He bought into the silly idea that we should all be grateful that SF deigned to stop killing us and was urging for ‘concessions’ to be given to them to keep them onside. The legacy of that is felt today with a boosted SF pumping out an Exxon Valdez slick of poison into NI politics. Thanks Jonathan!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Sister parties though? There was more of a confluence of political positions between Labour and the SDLP than between the Tories and the DUP. The latter differ pretty widely on austerity, NHS, social security etc.

  • Barney

    The point is this is HMG not political parties.

    The conservative and unionist party (at times formally and informally) stuff produced grumbling which was easily dismissed as nonsense just as this manufactured nonsense should be dismissed, it has no legs.

  • Barney

    Exactly what concessions was Powell urging and specifically which concessions were delivered? The only one I can think of was releasing prisoners however we all knew about that and it was put to a vote.

    Frankly most of what you say sounds like the whinge “community representatives” produce while encouraging people to vote against their own interests.

  • Tropicop

    Could be done with a nod and wink, like the OTT letters?

  • Korhomme

    An explanation; might be easier to understand then.

  • Korhomme

    That depends on what is meant by “recognition”.

  • DaptoDogs

    Jonathan Powell said McGuinness also recognised this after 9/11. However, that too is sixteen years ago. Neighbourly may return in forms unlike the bombing campaigns of SF/IRA on the British island and Europe, and DUP/UDA in Monaghan, Dublin and Belturbet. As the jihadis have shown, we should never underestimate the resources of the hateful.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Of course its all made up, Korhomme, all except the development by a community of a genuinely shared culture. I have worn my typing fingers out endlessly suggesting that as culture is the determinant (and recognised as such by most academic theories of nationhood) then the rest is simply politicians parasitically feeding of identity for their down interests, something I’d feel that Ernest Gellner at least would support me in. With NI seriously divergent from what England Wales and Scotland seem to be able to generally agree on culturally, it does raise something of a question about the validity of NIs customary (partial) claim to Britishness as anything other than the “protection” issue mentioned in the passports, at least for those whose mental climate politically is profoundly divergent from the values required of anyone seeking to become British Citizen, as described in the “Life in the UK” Booklet.

    Accepting that caveat, I’d never seek to deny the right of my fellow citizens to claim their Political Britishness, any more than I’d wish for them to claim my own Irishness was bogus. After all we each have the passports to prove it legally. But really, its more than my sanity could stand to have to fully equate members of the more extreme Loyalist fringe with anything that might be thought of as meaningfully “British” in any significant cultural sense. I’d hope that those other commentators who insist that I do not demur to even the slightest degree on their chosen identity are not “Big Brother” enough to insist that the laughter in my head is entirely stifled.

  • DaptoDogs

    No, because unlike the DUP, the SDLP have never threatened anyone’s peace or had links to paramilitary groups.

  • DaptoDogs

    Most likely.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    SDLP not as bad as DUP but (1) SDLP were also involved in ethnic politics in Troubles, always sided with Catholic concerns over Protestant ones even during “armed struggle” – unionists reaching hand out to SDLP got regularly rebuffed. They were not above the ethnic grinding all parties except Alliance did at times. (2) DUP “links to paramilitary groups” are a sorry tale I’d agree but not links in the SF sense. In DUP dealings with Loyalists utterly different in nature and scale. I’d summarise it as episodic flirting with the paramilitaries – mistaken and wrong – but not support for their terrorism. What people sometimes miss about DUP in Troubles is that to Loyalists they were all mouth and no trousers – Paisley as the “Grand Old Duke of York”. They expressed their anger at the IRA through verbal violence and agitprop stunts but in their minds at least – and I’d suggest this isn’t an imaginary distinction – actual terrorism was something on the other side of a pretty yawning chasm from what the DUP were about.

  • DaptoDogs

    Dear Mainland Ulster,

    I’d suggest that your (2) has some plausibility but is not the whole story. The DUP’s flirtations with the UDA were always moderated by the conception that the institutions of state were ‘theirs’, and where they were not serving Unionist interests were aberrant. Peter Robinson says as much here:
    This coheres with the reality of the Northern Irish state which, through the 1922-1972 the Special Powers Act, allowed Belfast to imprison without trial, deny legal counsel or family access, prohibit inquiries into legislative and judicial acts, and gave Home Affairs Ministers the ability to ‘create crimes by Decree’. These are extralegal powers that Unionist scholars Arthur Aughey and Alan Finlayson allow amount to a ‘state of exception’ based on a friend/enemy distinction, which had been in place since partition.
    All of which makes your parsing in (1) somewhat untenable. I can think of no greater critic of the IRA (during the ‘armed struggle’ phase) than Seamus Mallon, who ensured my own (Catholic) family was supported when Provos killed my uncle (a civil servant) I further think that Mallon’s criticism of violence purveyors still holds, and rightly so. What puzzles me is: what do you think a constitutional party is supposed to do if not advocate for its constituency? Do you think constitutional parties achieve a qualitatively greater legitimacy if the also advocate for opposing constituencies, and if so, are their examples of Unionist parties achieving this quality?

    Lastly, I was too young to be there, but have it on good authority that Paisley bused Belfastians to Newry for the first Civil Rights march there. They departed the bus with pick-shafts with four inch nails driven through the base. Do you think, pace Harold Wilson’s ‘If men of moderation have nothing to hope for, men of violence will have something to shoot for’ that, given their forceful subordination of civil politics, culpability for precipitating the Provos will ever be accepted by the DUP?

    Sadly, I think that the confusion here arises from the terms used in your opening sentence. NI’s politics is not ‘ethnic’ if the only terms you can use to describe it are ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’. This solipsism is where your analysis ultimately falls over. I know several Catholic Unionists and Protestant Republicans. Sects, ethnicities and ideologies are rarely homogenised as they are in NI, but even within NI there are differences. Unfortunately, homogenising terms in this way is what has excluded the heterodox reality, and given us ten DUP Westminster members and seven Sinn Féin abstainers. The SDLP was the antithesis of that, and Mike Nesbitt appears now to be that antithesis’s last political martyr.

    Best of luck to you, but I’d be pretty fearful for Unionism if the DUP become the instrument through which Theresa May’s Tories withdraw from the EU on harsh terms, and then militate the destruction of a ‘free at the point of service’ NHS and deep cuts in the grant to Stormont. Life south of the border will begin to look good to electorally significant numbers of NI voters.

    Good luck with it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    On the Catholic community’s relationship with Republicanism during the Troubles – I won’t go into detail now, but I completely accept and value highly the stances of both the Catholic Church hierarchy and the SDLP in calling out the IRA as evil and completely unjustified during the Troubles. And the SDLP were right on an awful lot of things, including a lot of how the state needed to change and was too antagonistic towards nationalist identity and values. I would point out the state wasn’t operating in a vacuum either and was itself responding to nationalist hostility to it, but it was a cycle that needed to end with reform towards a more pluralist vision of N Ireland.

    But it’s also true that the SDLP, when asked about Republican violence, frequently sought to use explanatory frameworks around the wrongness of partition, and the unwelcomeness of the security forces. Fair points perhaps taken on their own, but in the context of said security forces dying like flies at the hands of Republicans – that is, fellow nationalists after all – unionists like me found the SDLP narrative absolutely enraging, as it seemed to give the IRA a moral justification for their actions, even while condemning them. The SDLP really did have a much more morally compromised narrative on violence than is commonly appreciated now. The leadership also used policing as a political football at times – being willing to support the police if they got what they wanted at Sunningdale, but not if they didn’t. This is while policemen and women were being shot and bombed on a daily basis and living under appalling pressure. In those circumstances, the SDLP’s walking by on the other side of the road was pretty awful and it did come across – though may not have been intended – as ambivalence towards nationalist violence at some level. They certainly seemed a lot more concerned about violence suffered by nationalists than that meted out by nationalists and seemed very reluctant to accept nationalist ideology itself was fuelling a lot of it.

    On the ethnic thing, I do think it’s probably the central lens you need to look through when understanding N Ireland sociologically, though not the only one (see also class, masculinity, cultures of normalising extreme violent behaviour in both communities etc). There are some misconceptions about what ethnicity is. Ethnicity is a living thing and one’s ethnicity is not set in stone. There are elements of the unchosen and of the chosen; and of the *apparently* chosen but in reality rather absorbed from our environments. We all know of Catholics who identify more with the Protestant community and vice versa. However, it is undeniable that we still have effectively two tribes in N Ireland, or you can use whatever label you like, C/N/R vs P/U/L etc. There is a growing middle ground politically but it’s still quite a small minority of people.

    Unless we accept that who we are is partly to do with how and where we are brought up, I don’t think we can really understand places where people are so divided in their worldviews. And I prefer the concept of “ethnicity” here because I think it recognises we are not unique in this – though it’s one that frankly most white British and white Irish people think only applies to people of darker skins with heritage from other parts of the world. I also prefer it because I am aware that I think and talk like an Ulster Protestant, even though I have never believed in God and nor did my parents and I’ve lived outside Ulster longer now than in it. It seems silly to pretend I’m somehow not the product of an environment I grew up in where nearly everyone around me was Protestant and British and Northern Irish, where people tended to support Rangers not Celtic, where the union jack was your flag not a foreign implant, and so on. It doesn’t mean I have nothing in common with others – if anything I am more comfortable outside my own tribe – but self-awareness requires some acknowledgement of what is ingrained in one.

    It also became clear to me in my teens as I looked around at the rest of N Ireland that what seemed normal to me was complete anathema to most Catholics, not because of their religious identity but because of national allegiance, sporting culture, music, a whole bunch of things that had no resonance for me. And I realised I couldn’t expect them to feel like I felt and I couldn’t persuade them to be British like me, because actually that would be deeply patronising and superior.

    Discovering the depth of the cultural / ethnic division, you can take two approaches to the problems it throws up – the pluralist or the integrationist. The consensus in the liberal centre of N Ireland (of which I also feel part as the child of Alliance voters and tending towards Alliance myself these days) is integrationist – and there is much to be said for that. Eschew ethnic difference and adopt new identities we can all share.

    But – and this was a profound realisation for me in my teens – I don’t actually think that is a realistic or fair way of proceeding for everyone. I go the pluralist route, because it says actually rather than attacking someone else’s identity or persuading them out of it, which is sort of absurd, try to understand and accept it in a discerning way. It doesn’t mean people should be respected for offensive views, but it does say that the core of ethnic identities in themselves are not offensive, and that all ethnicities are of equal value. So rather than asking people to throw out the baby of their culture out with the bath water of ethnic prejudice, discern instead between good and bad expressions of ethnicity, good and bad expressions of culture. By taking away the threat to the core of how people feel about themselves, by accepting it, you give them the ability to be less defensive and make more calm and generous choices about others. If you like, to follow Aesop, I’m arguing for the sun over the wind as an instrument of persuasion towards developing senses of ourselves that do not threaten others.

    Sorry for the self-indulgence on that but I do think ethnicity matters and believe strongly that the key to a more tolerant society lies in accepting difference much more than we do, as well as the more well-trodden liberal centrist stuff I also value around insisting on civil, liberal shared values.

  • DaptoDogs

    The self-indulgence is permitted, if you permit my own. Partition has a context undoubtedly. That includes 1912, 1916, Collin’s intelligence war and the post-partition civil war. The contextual self-indulgence included here is, my grandfather, a most moderate farmer who helped his Protestant neighbours in lambing and calving times as regularly as his Catholic neighbours and also worked in NI forestry his whole life, regularly had his ID checked by B Specials and UDR men who were his juniors in their ‘day jobs’. This was wholly unnecessary provocation. Hence, policing was always an antagonistic issue. This self-referential refection is not mitigating Provo violence in any way, but it is also naive for those of us in the consensual/constitutional middle to not include the 1922-72 legal mode adopted by NI governments, and expect that that mode did not greatly influence SDLP responses. It is incumbent on us to realise that what may look like apologism to one political grouping was a reasonable representation of constitutionalism to others. Not supporting McGuinness in any way (indeed I’ve always held him responsible for the deaths of a few family and friends), and I accept that he could have been creating an historically revised justification, but he always claimed that seeing Gerry Fitt’s head busted open was what drive him into the Provos.

    I fully agree that the GFA’s ‘parity of esteem’ clauses problematise the sociological terms, but I remain convinced that a rural heterodoxy is/was subordinated by using ‘ethnic’ terms and constructs to describe NI. It adds an undeserved legitimacy to what was an internecine contest about sectarian ‘purity’. The industrial contest in and around Belfast supplemented the sectarian contest, but outside of Belfast and the garrison towns, the heterodoxy present resists ‘ethnicity’ as a descriptor. For example, that is why the UPV’s Thomas McDowell first tried bombing the Silent Valley Reservoir; he had a community to divide before he could set them at each others’ throats.

    I’m a bit Burkean about this; there was an ineffability to the 1922-72 situation. Recognising that could allow for a contemporary de-tribalisation.

  • DaptoDogs
  • MainlandUlsterman

    But I think the tribes have a longer history than Northern Ireland has and I don’t actually believe dismantling our tribes is necessary or possible. But I do agree there is a lot of common ground and we should spend more time on it. I am optimistic. Much of the tension in the past revolved around security and defence – hence the humiliating checks that I’m sure were resented in your family and many others. But I don’t see even in the darker days of Stormont a state with a desire to dominate and attack a minority, so much as one that had a deep fear of being attacked (if indeed the two can be separated), born of the seismic events around its birth and the years immediately before and after. The founders of N Ireland had little choice but to be highly security-conscious in the early years. Their failure really was to keep the state of alert too high too long, in a way that became counterproductive and damaged the chances of positive engagement with the nationalist community. Republicans for their part bear a responsibility too for the nature of the NI state in those years – their absolutism over a united Ireland and commitment to violent methods to achieve it presented an existential threat that no reasonable state could tolerate. Stormont got it wrong in its own way but I’d suggest most states around the world would have done very similar things in the same circumstances.

    To me anyway, the thing that always had to change before anything else could really change was the standing down of armed force Republicanism and we now largely have that. Stormont governments never really had the luxury of being able to assume the IRA had gone away as a threat to the state and they were obliged to keep on top of the problem. Now they are effectively gone, it has transformed things.

    Really I think quite a lot is possible in the future when the generations of people affected by the Troubles pass and the pain becomes a memory. But we’re a good 40-50 years away from that yet.


    “there was an ineffability to the 1922-72 situation. Recognising that could allow for a contemporary de-tribalisation”

    This has never been admitted or addressed beyond Trimble’s “cold house” comment and is never likely to be.

    The actions of Paisley in particular in the 50s and 60s are extraordinary. The modern-day equivalent would be Anjem Choudary, except Paisley was much more hands-on.

  • DaptoDogs

    Dear MainlandUlsterman,
    I once was much less optimistic, but now think that our future is coming to meet us somewhat faster than that.
    Thanks for acknowledging that Stormont carried on the state-of-exception long beyond the justifying emergency partition presented, but I do think it involved more than a response to ‘armed force Republicanism’. The IRA fought the Irish state, then each other in Spain, and then did bugger all through WWII until 1956. There were plenty of opportunities to de-escalate the Special Powers Act and develop the sort of shared NI identity we see forming now, there just wasn’t the will in Stormont (especially) during Craig’s tenure.

    Sure the tribes will continue, but the tribalism cannot.

    Warm regards

  • Accountant

    Are those Irish cultural traits then ?

  • Accountant

    Why would the newly, wrongly formed opinions of the Corbynistas worry the DUP ?

    And who are DUP/UDA ?

  • grumpy oul man

    I dont know if you missed but Jeremy had a great election and mrs May didnt.
    The Tories are having problems and fear that Labour could well beat them at the next election and that may not be long.
    Corbyn could be PM by the end of the year.
    Thats a good reason to take them into consideration.
    He has held his present views for a long time so i really dont see how you can call them newly formed.
    As for wrong well thats your opinion and possibly ac accurate as”newly formed.
    The DUP/UDA is the political party supported by the terrorist criminal gang called the UDA.

  • grumpy oul man

    Not likly, u like the DUP the SDLP never worked with terror groups.

  • grumpy oul man

    Hard to understand what your getting at beyond some sort of whataboutry.
    But since they people doing it are doing it to signify they arn’t Irish its fair to say it isnt Irish.
    But the question is (and my point is) would the people who iive in GB believe it was British.
    And i said that it will be amusing to watch a DUPer explaing that these secterian toxic eyesores are part of the great British culture.
    Oh by the way it is possible for something to be neither British or Irish and i think most people of either Nation would be reluctant to claim the 11th or 12th as part of their culture.
    That should tell you something.

  • grumpy oul man

    Still making claims and ducking explaining them.

  • Accountant

    Bit of a generalisation by me on the left wing media/social media output over the weekend, but the misinformation was staggering.

    Corbyn would do a deal with the Tories before talking to the DUP.

    Thank you for the clarification on DUP/UDA – I think that is a fair representation.

  • Accountant

    Well let’s get rid of them, then.

  • grumpy oul man

    If you mean the Bonfires and the sectarianism round the 12th yep i agree.

  • grumpy oul man

    There were two sides having the oul reign f terror thing.
    The IRA went away but the loyalists stayd and are still at it.
    The DUP is happy to work with these still active terrorists .
    Perhaps if you had experienced the unionist reign of terror instead of attending protests that loyalists were openly involved in then you may not show such sang froid about people being disturbed that a party with the history of the DUP haveing influence over the party in goverment.
    And you would also realise that comparing them to the SDLP is disingenuous in the extreme.

  • Accountant

    But you’ll keep the people (if they start behaving themselves the way you’d like) ?

  • grumpy oul man

    Not the way i like, just stop going out of there way to offend me and my culture.
    You really are trying to turn this into a mope.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Not quite right on IRA activity though. There was never a decade in which the IRA was not active and a serious threat to life. You could argue the 30s were about as good as it got (though apparently Twomey started planning a bombing campaign from when he took over in 1938), but when you say the IRA did bugger all through WW2, that isn’t right. In the war, the IRA was working with the Nazis and had to be extremely carefully watched – and of course wartime brought particularly huge security issues.

    While there was relative calm until ’56, the IRA part of the Republican Movement was still present, armed and training etc – the ‘Border Campaign’ was planned and didn’t come out of nowhere. That went on until 1962, then you had a serious threat of an offensive in 1965-66 (revealed by Prof Richard English recently) and the arming of the IRA throughout the 60s and increasing of its membership, then of course the outbreak of the Troubles in 69 and the order for the Provisionals’ “armed struggle” in January 1970 from the Provisional IRA Army Council and so on.

    There were always good “safety first” reasons to keep the legislation in place, because as the IRA itself boasts, you can never really defeat them or assume they are finished – you have to be ready to act against them as soon as they decide they are ready for violence again. And that happened regularly throughout the Stormont years. It is easy to look at “repressive legislation” only from the point of view of the mistakes and injustices and sure the aim should be to avoid these. But I think we need to also look at it from the point of view of policing and the protection of the public from violent groups in their midst. N Ireland never had an easy security situation and the legislation was more a symptom than a cause of that, though I appreciate all perceived and real injustice fed the IRA narrative and increased their appeal.

    The IRA were very aware of that too. A core strategy they had, particularly in the Provisionals, was to use violence to draw a policing response, which could then be pointed to as evidence of repression, etc and round again in a nice big ‘conflict’ circle – a circle in which the IRA could then flourish and act as it liked, as ‘defenders of the community’, standing up for ‘human rights’ etc. Cynical stuff. As Malachi O Doherty has often said, effectively used their own communities as human shields to advance the IRA’s cause.

    This is why people on the unionist side roll their eyes to the extent we often do when Republicans play the victim over security force actions that negatively affected Catholic communities.

  • Kevin McCaughey

    Scott, I think there is one eventuality that you did not include (possibly not wanting to scaremonger?)

  • grumpy oul man

    So let me get this straight. The SDLP are suspect because as a nationlist party they took the nationlist side.
    Of course unionists parties never took the nationlist side but you seem to forget that.
    And Unionist held out the hand to the SDLP and were rebuffed.
    Do you mean the time that unionists humallatted the SDLP with the murderous UWCstike to get them out of goverment.
    And we will ignore the fact that whill the IRA stopped the UDA are carrying on and the DUP seem very cosy with active terrorists,but merely ask a simple question.
    How many times must people work with terrorists before it becomes wrong.
    Is there a certain amount of innocents a organisation has to kill before a poltical should not work with them.
    How many bars do you need to machine before its wrong to share a platform with them.
    How much drugs must they sell before you wont take asistance from them at elections.
    Come on now you are always at this numbers game so give us some numbers on percentages needed before working with terrorists is unacceptable.
    20 dead
    100 dead
    500 dead.
    How many.

  • grumpy oul man

    A wonderful history minus of course the unionist contribution.
    It passing strange that you never mention unionist discrimmattion and violence.
    Really your post could have consisted of one phrase.

  • Accountant

    Agreed – but if they don’t go out of their way to disrespect you, then leave them alone.

  • grumpy oul man

    t they do go out of their way to disrespect me, they go to a great deal of effort to insult the whole nationlist ( and a lot of other communitys such as east Europeans or those of different colours)
    Plus the pollution caused effects us all.

  • DaptoDogs

    Dear MainlandUlsterman,
    Historians have a difficult job.They must construct a narrative, which cannot be the whole truth but must accurately represent the past without violating it. I have read Hull’s accounts of Twomey’s meeting and links to the Abwehr, and there’s much myth-making from the little evidence found in a relatively small FBI report set there. For example, the trove of material on Japanese Americans/Hawaiians is comparably vast.If there is anther source that you can recommend I would be most grateful. Moreover, I didn’t write that the IRA were inactive, but that they did ”bugger all’. That is just the case empirically, indeed as Chris Ryder’s “The RUC” lays out (although clearer referencing would greatly improve that tome), the RUC were well on top of the activity that did exist. It was also tactically the case because, particularly after the US entered WWII, attacking NI’s infrastructure would have been suicidal given the size of the American force garrisoned. Undoubtedly, the 1956-62 campaign was planned in the late 1930s. Though the inspiration for it was largely the desperation of the IRA leadership’s Spanish Civil War experience, and growing organisation’s irrelevance south of the border.

    However, surely you can see that you (now) and successive Stormont governments (then) have homogenised the IRA and Northern Catholics here, as David Trimble’s “cold house” comment allows, and that Northern Catholics became the repository for a range of existential fears? As you have noted, ‘safety first’ prevailed, But it is entirely possible that more-focused, less rolling, eyes would see that over-zealous Schmittian exceptionalism breathed life into a marginal group. Irish revisionists in Cruise O’Brien mode notwithstanding, this happened again with NICRA and led us to the Provos, who killed members of my own family, and several good Protestant people in the community in which I lived. It is not an apologia for terrorism of either side to note that other family members were ‘burnt out of Belfast’ by the UDA around the same time.

    This conversation began with my attempt to separate warrantable constitutional representation from the sort of sectarian cantonisation that succours brutes, We owe it to those that will live in NI after demographics and Westminster’s diminishment of the UK’s welfare state make its existence less justifiable. For me, that means engaging in with the facts of the past in ways that lessen the prospect of Unionists behaving as the IRA did once Protestants become a minority. Unfortunately, the GFA institutions force us into a ‘peace that ends all peace’ (Lukes, T 2011 ‘Appropriating, Distributing and Producing Space After 9/11) by constructing an ever-present ‘now’ in which the hardliners of SF and DUP squabble. But that is not the sort Burkean constitutional representation which the Irish or UK polities are based upon historically or require now. The ‘tribes’ may continue to exist, but a shared future requires some transcendence from those aspiring to represent those tribes.

  • DaptoDogs

    As I remember it, Hull is really talking about De Valera’s involvement with Germany, which is not the same thing as IRA involvement; again, homogenising threats is the issue here.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Not sure what the reference to “Hull” is – a typo / autocorrect? Bain of our lives.

    No, I was referring to Plan Kathleen, which was the actual IRA WW2 Nazi collaboration operation that concerned N Ireland, under which they smuggled weapons from the Nazis, made attacks on police etc. IRA leader Sean Russell famously died on a Nazi U-Boat during the course of his dealings with Hitler’s Germany:

    When you think about, they were natural bedfellows: violent ultra-nationalist extremists with a romantic view of enoblement through the spilling of others’ blood, blending ludicrously twisted patriotism with a ‘socialism’ that wasn’t really socialism, and of course a shared hatred of the British.

  • DaptoDogs

    Hull, Mark M. Irish Secrets. German Espionage in Ireland 1939-1945, 2002 (Irish Academic Press) ISBN 0-7165-2756-1

    I agree with your closing analysis. I’d would just note that, with the exception of your final clause, the same applies to the 1912 Covenanters. They also courted German power against British rule that didn’t suit them. That oppositionalism continued into modern times too: Hull, Mark M. Irish Secrets. German Espionage in Ireland 1939-1945, 2002 (Irish Academic Press) ISBN 0-7165-2756-1

    None has a monopoly on virtue here

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I wasn’t claiming one, just making a point that the Nazi collaborationism of Russell’s IRA was real and was the main crime of Republicanism during the war, sorry, “Emergency” – not De Valera’s neutrality and odd post-death-camp-liberation sentiments towards the Nazi regime, which were probably just him being weird and contrarian rather than actually sympathetic to Nazi Germany.