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
‘ … 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
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
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)