Book extract: Unionism is again at the crossroads

In the latest extract from a pro Union book, WB Smith argues that a system of voluntary coalitions with an opposition will de-tribalise politics and help construct an inclusive Northern Ireland which will deliver lasting government:

Saturday, 15th January 2022, 9:03 am
Updated Saturday, 15th January 2022, 9:23 am
Sinn Féin have shown that Semtex and Armalites are no longer needed to bring down Stormont: merely by threatening to withdraw, they wield a permanent veto over all policy decisions

Prime Minister Terence O’Neill addressed voters during the Stormont election campaign of February 1969:

“Ulster stands at the crossroads ... For more than six years now I have tried to heal some of the deep divisions in our communities. I did so because I could not see how an Ulster divided against itself could hope to stand. I made it clear that a Northern Ireland based on the interests of any one section, rather than on the interests of all, could have no long-term future.”

His audience was not impressed.

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Although his Unionist Party gained two seats in the 52-seat parliament, the campaign divided it into two factions. His ‘hardline’ opponents attacked him for failing to stand up to pressure from the Labour government at Westminster for ‘civil rights’ reforms.

Two months later he resigned. Under pressure from Westminster, the reforms went ahead.

As we approach the May 2022 election, unionism again stands at a crossroads.

Within the past year, both main unionist parties have replaced their leaders. They face immense challenges.

Like O’Neill, they are squeezed between the expectations of their electorate and the demands of a national government pursuing broader priorities.

Although they favour devolution, they cannot credibly argue that the 1998 Agreement has delivered good stable governance.

The Assembly has operated for only 12 of its 21 years, its ministers do not trust each other, and many voters question its value.

The Assembly fails the most basic test for any democracy: there is no effective opposition.

Simply by winning enough seats, the five largest parties carve up the spoils. DUP and Sinn Féin ministers stand accused of financial scandal, most obviously over the RHI affair, but the two dominant parties ‘oversee’ their own conduct through the Assembly committee system.

Despite the lack of opposition, the Executive is highly unstable.

Sinn Féin have shown that Semtex and Armalites are no longer needed to bring down Stormont: merely by threatening to withdraw, they wield a permanent veto over all policy decisions.

If as the polls suggest they become the largest party after the election, they will select the First Minister.

They would present this as another milestone in unionism’s retreat.

Although first and deputy ministers have the same powers, both main unionist parties will likely use the threat of this outcome to persuade voters to vote for them.

In this challenging context, unionism has to choose between two broad paths: to keep muddling on with a system which is clearly broken, or to grip the problem resolutely, demand changes in the Agreement, and make Stormont work well for most voters, irrespective of their community background.

There are obvious advantages for the British and Irish governments and the Executive parties in doing nothing: nobody will be blamed and no sinecures will be lost.

In time, however, events will likely force the pace of reform. It may soon suit Sinn Féin to collapse the Executive again; or the election results may call into question the whole sectarian apparatus of community designation, cross-community voting and mandatory coalition.

The Agreement requires key decisions in the Assembly — including the selection of first ministers — to be taken on a cross-community basis.

This may have seemed sensible in 1998, when it was widely accepted that the republican insurgency was best managed as a conflict between two national identity communities (unionists and nationalists) in a deeply divided society. But it is no longer appropriate.

The electorate has evolved beyond these binary designations.

In 1998, 40% of respondents to the Life and Times Survey described themselves as ‘unionist’, 25% ‘nationalist’ and 33% ‘neither’.

In 2020, the corresponding figures were 35%, 19% and 42%. With a “neither” plurality, the argument goes, shouldn’t we have a ‘neither’ first minister?

The coming election might bring matters to a head.

If most MLAs designate as ‘other’, rather than unionist or nationalist — mirroring their constituents — they would have a strong case for changing the rules.

Otherwise the system would privilege single-community parties over those who prioritise reconciliation, which the Agreement ostentatiously encourages.

The main ‘neither’ party — Alliance — is already committed to replacing community designation with a system of weighted majorities for defined votes; and to forming coalitions voluntarily by negotiation after each election.

So is the TUV, commonly misrepresented as the most ‘hardline’ unionist party.

The leaders of the other two unionist parties have also indicated that they want eventually to move to a system of voluntary coalitions with an effective opposition.

The strongest resistance comes from Sinn Féin, which claims that the proposed change would lead to its exclusion from government. It clearly doesn’t have much confidence in its ability to attract a coalition partner.

Unionists might not immediately benefit: initially, such a reform would probably increase the influence of Alliance as a potential partner for parties from both traditions, as in Belfast City Council. But there is a broader pro-Union argument to be made: that the de-tribalisation of politics is an essential step in constructing the sort of inclusive Northern Ireland which will deliver lasting good government for most people here for the foreseeable future.

Although a serious review of the Strand One institutions may be some time coming, unionists should prepare themselves to initiate it when the time is ripe, know what they want, and have a strategy for getting it.

They should commit themselves to a Union based on equal citizenship and respect for diversity, in contrast to the ethnic singularity of Irish nationalism.

Their message to the electorate should be that having celebrated its centenary, Northern Ireland has grown beyond the tribal politics of the nineteenth-century.

Three more points.

Firstly, as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK government recognises that everyone in the UK has the right to fair and consistent arrangements for law enforcement, free from political interference. This right was degraded for everyone in Northern Ireland by the concessions which Tony Blair gave the IRA during secret ‘peace process’ negotiations between 1998 and 2001.

Such flagrant defiance of the essential principles of ethical government must not be permitted in future. The leaders of unionism must insist on equal citizenship within a consistent legal framework.

Everyone in Northern Ireland has the right to be treated as full and equal citizens of the UK. This vital principle is degraded when the British government undermines the rule of law, treats Northern Ireland like a colony, fails to protect its borders or dilutes its constitutional status.

Secondly, an immediate and challenging priority is to reverse the damage being done by the Northern Ireland Protocol, rashly and unnecessarily conceded by the UK government as the price of Brexit for the rest of the nation. Whatever their designation, Northern Ireland consumers are already having to pay higher prices for a more limited range of goods.

The EU’s punitive control regime is impeding free trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, deliberately diverting Northern Ireland’s trading relationships away from Britain, and subjecting Northern Ireland to a swathe of EU regulations over which its people have no say.

In signing up for the Protocol, the British government has shockingly acknowledged that it has “subjugated” the Act of Union 1800 — the constitutional basis for the Union – in response to wholly unreasonable demands from the EU.

Finally, an overarching task for the leaders of unionism must be at every opportunity to challenge the false narratives of Irish nationalism: the illusion that the partition of Ireland was an historic injustice and the myth that from 1921 to 1971 unionists were uniquely sectarian in their treatment of their nationalist neighbours.

Effective leaders must not just manage political problems but also celebrate the qualities of their people.

One of the current priorities for Unionist leaders is to restore the reputation of a largely honourable community wickedly slandered.

Dr William Beattie Smith is a former civil servant and author of ‘The British State and the Northern Ireland Crisis 1969-73,’ published by the US Institute of Peace

Taken from ‘The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ edited by John Wilson Foster & William Beattie Smith. Contributors include David and Daphne Trimble, Owen Polley, Baroness Hoey, Dr Graham Gudgin, Jeff Dudgeon and Ben Lowry. Blackstaff Press, £12.99

• More on ‘The Idea of the Union’ below:

• Book Review of ‘The Idea of the Union’ Nov 20: Unionist leaders should read this vital defence of NI’s place in UK

• Authors of ‘The Idea of the Union’ Oct 30: We probe Irish nationalist myths in our new book which defends the Union

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