Was there ever a point at any period since 1968 when there was a serious prospect of British withdrawal and a united Ireland? The short answer – no. The IRA never had the capability of bombing the British out, let alone of wearing them down. And no British Government, irrespective of what it thought of unionists or the overall benefits of retaining the links with Northern Ireland, was ever going to take the unilateral decision to abandon the place. To do so would set a very dangerous constitutio
All of which begs another question: at what point did the IRA and Sinn Fein understand that violence wasn't going to deliver their ultimate goal of re-unification? The slightly longer answer – probably some time around the period of the hunger strikes in 1981, when it became clear that Mrs Thatcher would allow men to starve themselves to death rather than be seen to 'give in' to them. It was also at this time that Sinn Fein realised there was electoral and political capital to be made from the mixture of Thatcher intransigence versus republican martyrdom. A dead soldier or policeman sent a short brutal message, but Sinn Fein election success sent a much more problematic message to both the British and Irish Governments.
Change of tactics
Sinn Fein's change of tactics and growing evidence of electoral success created new problems for the Irish government and the SDLP, neither of whom wanted to be outflanked by a republican agenda driven by the IRA Army Council, albeit fronted by Gerry Adams. From such concerns was the pan-nationalist project created, the aim of which (in the minds of the Irish and SDLP at least), was to keep a rein on Adams and move him in the required direction. The Anglo-Irish Agreement and Frameworks Documents were the direct consequences of pan-nationalism (with input from the British Government), although neither went far enough for Sinn Fein/IRA.
Meanwhile, the unionist parties did precisely what was required of them: lots of shouting, lots of hollow showdowns, lots of ineffectual demonstrations and very little in the way of serious thinking or strategy. Even though it had been obvious since the 1972 Green Paper that any settlement would require an Irish dimension and power-sharing, underpinned by the constitutional guarantee that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK for so long as a majority voted for it, unionists still behaved as though they could get a settlement which suited them and them alone. So while nationalism/republicanism managed to create the illusion that it was inclusive, embracing and forward-thinking, unionism came across as exclusive, insular and shackled to the past.
In other words, nationalism/republicanism couldn't have asked for better opponents. Every unionist document or strategy was entirely predictable and usually couched in the sort of 'poor us' language that would have convinced our opponents that we were easy pickings. We didn't trust anyone. We didn't trust the British, the Irish, the Americans, the SDLP or Sinn Fein. We didn't even trust each other.
Sinn Fein had also begun to distance themselves from their pan-nationalist colleagues and were engaging in a more intimate and detailed dialogue with John Major's Government. They could see that unionism remained rudderless and friendless and concluded that Major might be biddable if the IRA could deliver a guaranteed ceasefire and an end of activity in both England and Northern Ireland. It was at that point that Adams knew that he needed a talks process in which the IRA could make a pitch for political respectability and from which the unionists would either exclude themselves from the start or walk from at an early stage – leaving the British, Irish and republicans to get on with Plan B.
Plan B, by the way, was never a united Ireland in the morning. Plan B was the total isolation and demoralisation of unionism and a gradual progress towards their political emasculation. Then along came David Trimble. Sinn Fein must have hoped that the UUP would abandon the Castle Buildings talks in the autumn of 1997. They must have hoped that the UUC would refuse to ratify the agreement at a special meeting in April 1998. They must have hoped that ‘No’ unionism would reject the agreement at the referendum. They must have hoped that Jeffrey Donaldson would have toppled Trimble. They must have hoped the UUP Assembly group would implode. They must have hoped that the UUC would reject the ‘leap into Government’ in November 1999.
But Trimble outfoxed them at every point along the way. He kept his Assembly group, the UUC and the party executive intact, albeit with increasingly small majorities. And by keeping them intact he ensured that Sinn Fein remained bogged down in a position in which they had never expected to find themselves – co-governing NI as part of an internal UK settlement. Similarly, he ensured that the DUP was also bogged down in the same position, co-governing along with Sinn Fein.
And that’s where we are today. With two differences: the DUP, by opting for mutual veto at St Andrews has strengthened Sinn Fein’s position at the heart of Government. And by running a 2007 campaign focused entirely on Sinn Fein, they ensured an increase in Sinn Fein’s overall vote. As Enoch Powell said: “The more you mention your opponent, the more support you send their way.”
But republicanism hasn’t gone away. It will always be there in some form. So the primary task of unionism now is to build a strategy and political platform which makes it increasingly difficult for Sinn Fein to convince its core vote that a united Ireland is worth the candle. In my view, that isn’t likely to happen if the DUP and Sinn Fein continue down their present path of mutual veto and ‘us and them’ approach to devolution. It may suit Sinn Fein to keep the divisions alive in the form of a social/civic/electoral border, but it isn’t in the long-term interests of the Union.
Having forced Sinn Fein individually and the pan-nationalist front collectively into accepting an internal settlement, the next task for unionism is to sell the merits and continuing benefits of the Union and the United Kingdom. That requires us to lift our eyes from a little-Ulster perspective and focus on pan-UK unionism.
Alex Kane is UUP director of communications