Alex Kane: Unionism needs a strategy because this is the endgame

What do unionists do if they don’t trust the UK government to protect their interests?

By Alex Kane
Monday, 13th July 2020, 1:00 pm
Updated Monday, 13th July 2020, 4:28 pm

My gut instinct is that most unionists – probably, in fact, a considerable majority – believe British governments, Conservative or Labour, almost always give in to Sinn Fein. That’s a remarkable thing to think about a government which unionists want to regard as their own.

The UK Exchequer has poured billions in subventions into NI since 1921. Huge military and intelligence service resources (including tens of thousands of military personnel during Operation Banner) were invested in trying to keep paramilitary terrorist groups contained. Successive British governments since 1972 have promised – it’s usually in every general election manifesto – to govern NI as part of the United Kingdom until a majority here decides otherwise. And yet ...

Almost every unionist leader I can think of (and I’m including not just the UUP and DUP, but all the smaller groupings and off-shoots down the years) has, at some point, accused British governments of spinelessness and betrayal in their earlier responses to the IRA. Maybe with substantial justification. Almost 50 years ago, in July 1972, representatives of the government met representatives of the IRA (Gerry Adams was there); and, to be honest, I’m not convinced those back channels have ever been closed. I mean, would anyone be surprised to discover members of the IRA Army Council (which hasn’t gone away, you know) are still in touch with government/intelligence services?

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Boris Johnson alongside Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster at the DUP conference in November 2018. He was cheered to the rafters when he promised he would never let NI be reduced to semi-colony status, via a border in the Irish Sea

From 1972 – when a Green Paper prioritised power-sharing and an ‘Irish dimension – UK governments and their opposition counterparts have generally pursued what is best understood as a bipartisan approach of benign neutrality. In other words, while sticking with the spirit of the ‘constitutional guarantee’ (NI is part of the UK for so long as a majority wishes it), they’ve hardly fallen over themselves to be particularly active in promoting the values, benefits and substance of the Union.

Some believe the thrust of government policy since 1972 has been, not the utter destruction of the IRA, but rather the creation of a ‘solution’ into which the IRA and Sinn Fein can buy. Some further believe the continuation of that policy can be seen in what appears to be the willingness of every government since 1992 (the informal beginning of what we now understand as the peace process) to give Sinn Fein want it wants. Indeed, some would argue the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement shifted the previous bipartisan neutrality from benign to potentially Union-destroying.

If unionists really believe UK governments don’t act in their best interests, what should they do? Collapsing the institutions permanently has some appeal. But who, right now, would trust Boris Johnson to protect the interests of local unionists? Johnson was a key player in the ERG group which turned its back on the DUP and supported a Withdrawal Agreement which threatened to undermine NI’s constitutional relationship with the rest of the UK.

Johnson was cheered to the rafters at a DUP conference 18 months ago when he promised he would never allow NI to be reduced to semi-colony status. Eight months ago he told local Conservatives to ‘put in the bin’ anything that mentioned a border down the Irish Sea. He is not to be trusted. On anything. Why does anyone imagine his government would be more willing to stand up to Sinn Fein if the Assembly wasn’t there?

So, what do unionists do? Who do they trust? Where do they go? They can complain about Sinn Fein all they like, yet it’s all mere sound and fury if they don’t walk away from the Assembly until the Sinn Fein ‘problem’ is sorted. Would they get direct rule if they did walk? Nope. Would they have a pro-Union government in their corner? Nope. Have they any guarantee the government would even address their concerns? Nope.

Regular readers (along with radio and television audiences) will know that I’ve argued for years that the Assembly cannot and will not work. I don’t regret the political risk I took in 1998 when I voted Yes in the referendum, but it clearly hasn’t delivered what many had hoped it would deliver. And it won’t.

Reconciliation is not possible, because reconciliation requires common purpose and the same goals. Peace isn’t just groups of terrorists not shooting us or themselves anymore. Peace involves the certainty – along with the clearest evidence – there will be no return to the past; which means the removal of all of the structures and organisations linked to terrorism. Yet 25 years since the peace process began and those structures and organisations are still front, centre, sideways; and demanding input.

There have been numerous occasions since 1998 when the mechanisms could have been overhauled and the ruses for abuse removed. But no, they’re all still in place. I’ve lost count of the number of summits, crisis talks, new agreements, side-deals and negotiations which have failed to sort the problems. Unionists returned in January without reforms. They remain in place now, after the hoopla and deranged parsing surrounding the Storey funeral.

The Assembly in its present form cannot deliver credible, consensual, genuine, honest power-sharing. And it won’t, because there isn’t the desire to change it from within. Is there any likelihood of a middle-ground emerging and replacing the ‘two destinations in one government’ we’re presently lumbered with? Nope. This is endgame territory.

All of which presents unionism with a problem. What does it do? It can whinge until the cows come home about SF and the spinelessness of UK governments. It can whinge about Irish governments. It can whinge about Alliance, liberal unionists and a complacent media et al. But what does it actually do?

Most unionists don’t want to share power with SF. But nor do they trust a UK government to necessarily promote and protect their interests outside the Assembly. So, I’ll ask again, what does unionism do? More important: when does it start doing it?

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Alistair Bushe