Chronicling the shift in modern unionism

TEN years on from the Belfast Agreement and a year after the Chuckle Brothers sealed their deal on the St Andrews amendments, I have been reading two books which offer widely (some may even say, wildly) differing versions of the unionist journey to both of those moments.

Frank Millar's, David Trimble—The Price of Peace, is a revised and updated edition of his 2004 original; while David Vance's, Unionism Decayed, is, as the title suggests, a cynic's history of events.

Frank Millar is, and by a very considerable margin, the best informed and most influential commentator on unionist affairs.

He has sympathy for and an understanding of unionism which can be sourced to his previous career as a party political activist and general secretary of the Ulster Unionist Party. He also has an insight into DUP thinking, and along with Peter Robinson and Harold McCusker, was joint author of the Task Force Report in 1987.

Accompanying that sympathy, understanding and insight is a determination to question – often in fairly brutal terms – the direction in which unionism has been travelling over the last two decades. It helps, too, that he is a great natural writer who doesn't pull his punches. He is trusted by key players in both main parties, even when they don't share his view or welcome his analysis.

More important, though, is the fact that Millar is hugely respected by the key figures within the other political parties and in government circles; and when he writes about unionism he is capable of seeing it from the perspective of non-unionists.

World of difference

There is a world of difference between opinion pieces, reporting of events, punditry and the serious, accurate, influential analysis offered by people like Millar. And it's that difference which makes the Trimble book an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the man and the importance of his role in shifting unionism (including the DUP) onto new territory.

As Millar writes: "Here was a leader of unionism laid low by a combination of history and past experience, the constraints imposed by its own sectarian inheritance and instinctive siege mentality, the self-delusions and inadequacies of its leaderships, its capacity for political growth stunted by a punishing terrorist campaign and faced with varying degrees of hostility and indifference on the part of successive British governments, when– after 25 years of warfare – the IRA suddenly invited London to sue for peace…what guarantees his (Trimble's) place in history is that he was able to rise above the natural fears and suspicions of his own people – even as he shared them – realising that the offer of a genuine peace was one that should be grasped."

The first edition of the book ends in November 2003, when the DUP had just nudged ahead of the UUP (30 to 27) at the Assembly election and David Trimble was still "defiant of those who insist a DUP/Sinn Fein two-party state is either inevitable or an already accomplished fact". Maybe it wasn't inevitable, even after St Andrews, but it is, now, an accomplished fact.

In fairness to Millar it has to be said that the new preface and final chapter of this edition do not claim to be a detailed analysis of political development between November 2003 and May 2007; but they do tie up some of the loose ends while maybe, just maybe, offering a final vindication of Trimble's strategy.

Trimble 'made it easier'

Millar records one DUP source as saying: "I accept that Trimble has made it easier for us." No-one could argue with that. But while it is true that the DUP's hop, skip and a jump into government with Sinn Fein was a comparatively easy experience compared to Trimble's, there are still huge problems ahead for the party. And, as Millar concludes, to meet new challenges "the DUP will have to reinvent itself all over again".

That reinvention – probably made easier by the overthrow of the Paisley dynasty – will determine the fate and future of unionism and, paradoxically, of the Ulster Unionist Party too.

David Vance's book is a totally different kettle of fish, altogether. Vance isn't a mainstream journalist or commentator. His contacts with the DUP and UUP are limited. He has never played a major role in Northern Ireland politics (apart from a very brief period as deputy leader of Bob McCartney's UKUP).

That said, he is, like Millar (albeit with a totally different style), a good, natural, passionate writer. His argument is a simple one: unionism has decayed because most of its supposed champions have buckled, bent and then rolled over, accepting a snout in the trough as compensation for the reality of an undefeated IRA and the presence of Sinn Fein in government.

Chapter by chapter he lays into the UUP, DUP, Loyal Orders, the Protestant Churches, loyalist paramilitaries and successive British governments. For good measure he also has a go at the UKUP, too.

It would be easy, indeed tempting, to dismiss Vance as a crank. But I suspect that he has tapped into a vein of unionist thinking which is much more widespread than either the DUP or UUP would dare to admit.

The electoral strength of the TUV – for whom Vance has a high regard – has yet to be properly gauged; but I'm increasingly of the opinion that it is much stronger than any of us think.

No alternative

My problem with the book – and I'm sure that the author won't be surprised by this criticism – is that it fails to offer an alternative.

I share his opinion of British governments down the years; and Frank Millar also makes the point that the relations between governments and unionist parties have often been fraught.

But what else could the unionist parties have done? The very fact that the UKUP itself was prepared to contest and then take seats in the Assembly, and that it then imploded and fell apart, is surely testament to the reality that unionism is incapable of delivering some sort of stand alone solution.

Nonetheless, Vance's book is a very useful counterpart to Millar's. What they document is the clash between pragmatic unionism (which can be summed up as making the best of unpleasant political realities) and moral high-ground unionism (the view that almost anything is better than terrorist appeasement). The pragmatists have carried the day, so far. Yet, to be brutally honest, I acknowledge that as a matter of fact, rather than as a matter of pride.

The real problem now for unionism, as it was in 1921, is that we (the pragmatists) are being forced to defend a structure of government which we never really wanted and which may, in the long-term, prove to be thoroughly bad for us.