Ben Lowry: Unionists are more vulnerable to the fall of Stormont than republicans

Owen Polley wrote on Monday past that devolution is a disaster for unionism and always has been (see link below).

Saturday, 21st August 2021, 12:17 pm
Updated Saturday, 21st August 2021, 2:36 pm
Each republican-led crisis, from spying to burglaries, has led to a Sinn Fein-led negotiation at Stormont. The party even shut devolution for three years until it got its Irish language act, which sets a precedent

He writes another article for us on page 15 today.

Monday’s piece was widely read online and drew three letters, including one from the former UUP and Ukip MLA David McNarry, who said it was wrong to give up on Stormont. Reform it instead, he said.

It certainly needs radical reform in its operation.

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I did not hesitate much in backing the 1998 Belfast Agreement. I was in my 20s and felt that the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement had shown the frailty of the unionist position.

I felt that the removal of Ireland’s territorial claims on NI, the transatlantic acceptance of the principle of consent, and the republican acceptance of Stormont were huge gains.

It would have been difficult to get such buy-in from Sinn Fein without prisoner releases, but I thought releases should have been tied into decommissioning. Yet I know David Trimble’s view that there would never have been agreement if everyone had adopted a legalistic approach (a point worth remembering, now that critics of the UK in Brussels, Dublin and Washington talk as if the Belfast Agreement is a legally watertight deal that places NI between the UK and Ireland).

We can only deal with the information we have at the time. As I got older I came to see the validity of Robert McCartney QC’s critiques of the Belfast and St Andrew’s agreements.

The first thing that I began to see as a huge problem was legacy.

By 2001, when I was a daily news reporter on a Belfast paper, it was becoming clear to me how collusion was being grossly exaggerated to demonise the security forces, and retrospectively legitimise the IRA.

The second thing that became quickly apparent was the way in which the 1998 deal not just brought Sinn Fein in from the cold, but turbo charged them.

The northern nationalist repudiation of SF had been emphatic from the time of it first fighting elections in the early 1980s. The southern repudiation was almost universal.

Yet a campaign that was rejected even by those on behalf of whom it was said to be fought, and rejected entirely by the people of the state that the IRA wanted to subsume us, is now increasingly seen as legitimate by young people.

This is partly because, to build on points made by a letter writer Clive Maxwell this week (see link below), state schools in NI do not teach history that challenges the ‘sectarian statelet’ version of the province’s origins.

Stormont made statesmen of Sinn Fein.

But the really big problem now, the biggest of all, is that Stormont has at its heart a party that wants NI to fail. That is a legitimate Sinn Fein goal, however disagreeable it might be to most of us. The problem is that a party with such an aim has to be in power at all times.

The four main ruling parties in London and Dublin — Tory, Labour, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail — are in consensus on the overriding objective of placating SF. But this has been facilitated by unionists.

Arlene Foster once got annoyed once at the suggestion that DUP MLAs were conceding things to keep their jobs. But all normal politicians, like all normal working people, want to keep their livelihood.

The abnormal factor at Stormont is a party with a military mindset, SF, that tells its elected representatives to accept an industrial wage and which will endure lack of political posts for as long as it takes to get a cherished policy advance.

Each republican-led crisis, from decommissioning to spying to burglaries or killings, has ultimately led to a SF-led negotiation. Devolution of policing and justice became a crisis, as did welfare reform.

It is appalling that the RHI scandal ever happened, and so much money was wasted (by at best incompetence), and so gave SF excuse to collapse devolution. But it did.

By the end of that three-year collapse, I was one of the few voices saying that there must be no reward via a specific policy, be it an Irish language act or anything else.

The only way of breaking the republican pattern of exploitation of crisis was to ensure that Stormont was restored without any policy reward whatsoever for Sinn Fein.

If not that, then direct rule with the most minimal possible role for Dublin until it too learns not to be an advocate for nationalism.

The only surprise to me was the speed with which my view was vindicated, with SF in a pandemic demanding a date for implementation of a powerful Irish language commissioner above all other matters.

A DUP leader in effect acquiesced in that plan (albeit protesting), and a Tory secretary of state jumped to the SF tune.

What part of this pattern is not now clear?

This will recur so long as a party that wants Northern Ireland to fail can see how desperately those of us who want Northern Ireland to succeed are to keep the show on the road, at all costs.

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor