Robert McCartney: Unionists have one card left to play against the process of Irish unity - to stay out of Stormont
Talks which are intended to fulfil that objective without removing the central unionist objection namely ‘The removal of the Protocol,’ which will effectively sunder the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Presently Northern Ireland remains part of the EU in company with the Republic of Ireland and subject, to the EU's regulation and the judicial system to enforce it; while the rest of the UK departs from the EU. If the Northern Ireland Protocol remains the fate of the Union will be sealed. There is only one chance with any hope of closing what will be an ever widening separation. Put simply it is to refuse to return to Stormont until the protocol is removed and NI restored to a secure constitutional position as an integral part of the UK.
It is clear beyond doubt that Westminster considers the assembly to be an essential part of a process designed to secure Irish unity, for indeed the so called peace process is just that a process for unity which is clearly its predetermined and only purpose. The threatened permanent collapse of the assembly and with it the process is the only card the unionist community have left to play. The present negotiations form the context of the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. It is of value to scrutinise some of the players and their playing records and what they stand to gain or lose.
The basic psyche of the DUP leadership has always been to gain power and the spoils of office it brings with it – and sometimes the spoils lie within the gift of the British government. Minus the power and with Sinn Fein in the saddle perhaps even the status and emoluments of office may prove enough.
Becoming a statesman in the way that the late David Trimble did by yielding to the pressure from the great and the good and wishing to appear restrained and statesmanlike led to the former Ulster Unionist Party leader’s political demise and a catastrophic outcome for his party. A desire to please and earn the false approval of one’s opponents is a fatal flaw.
Two of the current card players Jeffrey Donaldson and Peter Robinson have been much in evidence this week, as decision time looms closer. The ‘Dogs in the Street’ as well as his opponents are aware that Jeffrey is much disposed to a return of the party to Stormont.
This however is opposed by the resistance of party members some 75% of whom indicated in a recent public opinion poll that it is a course they would object to. In addition two of the party's senior members have been publicly vocal in their opposition to a return without a repeal of the protocol. As a result if it is pursued it might detonate a major split in the party at a time when unionists feel increasingly vulnerable.
Attending the 2019 party conference of Fine Gael in Wexford with Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney (no friends of unionists) at a time of constitutional crisis will hardly have sat well with those whose support Sir Jeffrey will require.Moreover he has not signified whether he personally will lead the party in the assembly to which he advises their re-entry or retain his seat in Parliament.
Peter Robinson's reasons for giving support to the party's return to Stormont are rather more opaque, perhaps he just wants to play the role of the elder statesman. In a recent Talkback interview on the BBC that smelt of group planning he disclosed that on Privy Council terms which he could not specifically state he was aware of the putative terms of a proposed settlement. His advice to Jeffrey was presumably offered on the basis of his experience was that one should offer a number of demands so that some of the non essential ones could be abandoned in the give and take of negotiations. Was this was a suggestion that some of Jeffrey’s Seven Tests could be jettisoned? This advice might be useful except in the case where there was one all important demand that could not be compromised namely the repeal of a protocol which was inimical to the place of unionists, their culture and identity within.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Peter's pre recorded BBC interview was interspersed with sporting analogies like snooker. One should not be advised to attempt a risky table clearance but play for safety. However a failed safety shot might offer one’s opponent an an opportunity to clear the table himself. It might even be said that Peter was himself playing the part of the retired groundsman rolling the cricket square to suit his own club. If his objective was to unify the party to avoid a serious split it looks a forlorn hope.
“There is nothing new under the sun” says the Prophet and certainly nothing new in the behaviour of the DUP leadership in resiling from affirmed positions. In the 2005 general election I agreed with Paisley and Robinson not to oppose their already declared candidate Peter Weir provided they gave me several undertakings and repeated them in their election manifesto. As a result the 2005 general election manifesto included among other things the following terms
1. “Inclusive mandatory coalition Government which includes Sinn Fein under D’Hondt or any other system is OUT OF THE QUESTION”.
2. “The reason for this is clear D’Hondt would give Sinn Fein places in Government as of RIGHT.”
The DUP manifesto entitled “Leadership” claimed that they (the DUP) would be “KEEPING OUR PROMISES”.
At the meeting with Paisley and Robinson, the latter expressed the view that “it would be a generation before Sinn Fein’s democratic fitness for Government would be achieved”. Two years later the DUP at Saint Andrews signed up to enter a mandatory coalition with Sinn Fein. Jeffrey Donaldson and Peter Robinson were among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the deal. Indeed on the 13th of October 2007 I wrote in this newspaper “Jeffreys’ thirst for a return to Stormont on almost any terms is all consuming”.
Donaldson and Robinson have form in their devotion to Stormont and a willingness to preserve it at any cost.
The current talks reveal that unionists in general and the DUP in particular have only one last card to play in this game, for there will be no return to the table. The existence of an assembly at Stormont is an essential element in the Anglo Irish Peace Process. Westminster in this process to unity will achieve its long sought after disengagement from Northern Ireland and the relief from the ongoing threat of a mainland bombing campaign. The Republic by means of this protracted assignment will be better placed to accommodate a sedated and seduced unionist people.
Both the British and Irish governments have devoted immense time and resources to create this process for Irish Unity. The only unionist card left to play is a continued withdrawal from a Stormont which threatens this process for their ultimate prearranged and preordained demise.
• Robert McCartney KC is a former UK Unionist leader, MP and MLA