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Between war and peace

Paul Dixon on the painful leaking of support for power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

The recent European elections have confirmed the result of the Assembly Elections in November 2003 which underlined the dominance of Sinn Fein among nationalists and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party among unionists. These have been the most uncompromising parties in Northern Ireland and it is difficult to see where the ground for possible agreement between these two parties lies.

So how did we get to this situation? The parallels with the first peace process (1972-74) which resulted in the collapse of power-sharing in May 1974 are not promising. Then Brian Faulkner, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, agreed to share power with nationalists in a voluntary coalition. Faulkner did not bring back enough from the negotiations at Sunningdale to sell the deal to unionists. Support for the Agreement leaked on the unionist side until a strike called by the Ulster Workers’ Council succeeded through a combination of intimidation and popular unionist opposition to the Agreement.

The ghosts of Sunningdale were supposed to have informed the second peace process (1994-2004). However, when Trimble took a gamble in 1998 and signed the Good Friday Agreement he was left by the British and Irish governments to blow in the wind. While the Agreement had the support of an overwhelming majority of nationalists it only had the bear support of a majority of unionists. Even this was probably due to pledges made by Blair on the implementation of the Agreement that he subsequently reneged on to the annoyance of unionists.

For those who support power-sharing the leakage of support for Trimble was plain and painful to see. You don’t have to like Trimble or unionism to realise that he represented the best chance of power-sharing, devolved government in Northern Ireland and the consolidation of the peace process. There is a distinction to be made here between the moral question of how far Trimble should move towards accommodation with nationalists and the tactical question, how far can the Unionist leader go.

Nationalist critics and many in the press had slated Trimble’s leadership of the UUP. When he signed the Good Friday Agreement the distinguished journalist, Ed Moloney, commented on the ‘big re-writing job’ to be done by journalists on the Unionist leader.

‘ … For months he was cast in the role of the wicked aunt of the Stormont Talks. Few believed he would do or was ever capable of doing the deal and when he did he gave most of the media a nasty shock.

Now he has to be recast in a friendlier mould but there are problems. Lingering doubts remain about how genuine his conversion is and then there are all those nasty things that were written about him…’

There was a brief honeymoon period for David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party after the signing of the Agreement. The result of the referendum appeared to demonstrate that the principal unionist party and a majority of unionists were prepared ‘to have a Catholic about the place’ and share power with nationalists.

Nationalist critics and others soon rounded on Trimble arguing the he was failing to sell the Agreement strongly enough to unionism and casting doubt on whether he really wanted to share power with Catholics after all. This may have been a sincerely held view or else a view deployed in the propaganda war to maximise pressure on the unionist leader.

Trimble’s record was difficult to judge because while he was developing a more liberal, civic unionism to underpin his participation in the Executive and devolved institutions the key danger to his position was hardline unionists within his party and the challenge from the DUP. He attempted to appeal to all audiences through a blend of liberal and traditional unionism.

While the unionist leader might have tried harder to sell the Agreement there were even some republicans who accepted that he had a tough job. Martin McGuinness, having lambasted unionists for ‘not wanting a Catholic about the place’, now argued that nationalists and republicans had to take ‘the first step towards trusting the unionists are changing and that they no longer want to dominate and discriminate against us.’

There was plenty of evidence that the Unionist leader was under severe pressure. Six out of ten Ulster Unionist MPs opposed the Agreement, as did the Orange Order, the UUP’s vote dropped in the Assembly elections of June 1998. The 2001 British general election saw a further erosion of UUP support and suggested that a majority of unionists were now opposed to the Agreement. Trimble survived numerous challenges from within his party from anti-Agreement unionists. Opinion polls reflected the decline in support of unionists for the Agreement and the UUP. In October 1999 just 49% of Protestants said they would vote yes in a referendum on the Agreement but by February 2003 this had dropped to just 36%. By November 2003 an opinion poll suggested that nationalists had more confidence in the British government than unionists.

While the IRA have decommissioned there is no indication of the extent of this decommissioning, whether it represents 1% or 33% of the IRA arsenal. This meant that Trimble found it very difficult to justify to unionists his participation in government with Sinn Fein – particularly as the parties in the Republic of Ireland were refusing to enter into a coalition government with the Shinners.

The British government cancelled elections in May 2003 because it was anticipated that the DUP and Sinn Fein would become the dominant parties. Both the US and Irish governments put pressure for elections to be held and in November 2003 they got their wish.

All eyes are now on the DUP and Sinn Fein, can they do a deal and restore devolution? There is evidence that these two parties have had ‘back-channel’ contacts for some time but whether they can arrive at a compromise that each can sell to their supporters is debatable. On the one hand the DUP are a pro-devolution party and their ministers appeared to enjoy wielding political power. They have played a very astute tactical game and have consolidated their position as the principal party of unionism. There are reports which suggest that Nigel Dodds and Peter Robinson may want to marginalise Ian Paisley and reach an agreement with Sinn Fein.

On the other hand, the DUP – the party and its’ voters – have been fed a diet of ‘no terrorists in government’ and the complete disarmament of the IRA. Selling an about turn on these issues, no matter how cannily, will be very difficult for any DUP leadership to achieve, even with the endorsement of Paisley. It is difficult to see what Adams would give the DUP that he refused to give Trimble and whether the parties could finesse the disarmament and disbandment of the IRA.

A deal with the DUP may not be achievable and, according to polls, would not be popular in Northern Ireland but the alternative could be indefinite direct rule from London. Sinn Fein have made gains both in elections in the North and the Republic of Ireland. But their electoral gains may not be sufficient to satisfy republican militarists in the North. The danger is that Provisional Republican activists may start to ask what the ‘unarmed struggle’ has produced for republicanism if they have no share of power in the North and little prospect of Irish unity. This could reinvigorate a dissident republican movement which is currently weak and struggling to sustain an ‘armed struggle’.

Paul Dixon is author of Northern Ireland: The Politics of War and Peace (Palgrave 2001)