The nationalist-unionist detente of 1998 lies dead – now pro-union community is seen as just an awkward obstacle to overcome

The death of somebody famous is a strange thing, particularly in the way that it can provoke real sadness.

By Neil McCarthy
Thursday, 4th August 2022, 4:14 am
Updated Thursday, 4th August 2022, 10:35 am
SDLP grandee Seamus Mallon and David Trimble in 1999, flanked by Irish taniste of the day Mary Harney and taoiseach Bertie Ahern; this columnist writes that the tolerant and accommodating nationalism of those days has been replaced by a harsher vision of unionists as an obstacle to be overcome
SDLP grandee Seamus Mallon and David Trimble in 1999, flanked by Irish taniste of the day Mary Harney and taoiseach Bertie Ahern; this columnist writes that the tolerant and accommodating nationalism of those days has been replaced by a harsher vision of unionists as an obstacle to be overcome

When I found out that David Trimble had died last week I did feel real sadness. I had seen coverage of the unveiling of his portrait in Queen’s just a few weeks ago and that moving photograph of him there in lively conversation with Bertie Ahern.

I remember thinking he looked a little gaunt but thought little of it. He seemed a man blessed with a strong constitution.

When Seamus Mallon died two years ago, Trimble recalled that he had only visited him a week earlier in his home in Markethill: “It was important to him and it was important to me too. When I left last Friday, I said I would come back next week but I didn’t because time ran out”.

Neil McCarthy

Anyone reading all the sectarian guff about Trimble’s so called awkwardness should watch the video where he speaks those words about Mallon and they will see a great chief mourning another in beautifully measured simple English, and real emotion just barely controlled.

That photograph of Trimble in front of his new portrait talking so animatedly to Ahern and that video are heartbreaking in fact because they are a poignant reminder of the great promise of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement: a lasting and true détente between nationalist Ireland and the Ulster Protestant unionist people.

That was David’s greatest achievement.

In all the tributes to him much has rightly been made of the apparent paradox of a man who when asked what he wanted for his people reportedly said “to be left alone” and yet, in order to achieve that, was prepared to sit down with the political representatives of the Provisional IRA and do the hard intellectual and emotional work necessary to reach an understanding of what makes Irish nationalism tick.

In this task he was greatly helped by the somewhat unsung tradition of Official – as opposed to Provisional - Irish republicanism, and even the likes of Brendan Clifford and his merry band in the British and Irish Communist Organisation, whose “Two Nations” theory of Irish history had such a profound influence upon Trimble.

The extraordinary spectacle of ex-Official Sinn Féin member Eoghan Harris schooling the assembled ranks of the UUP on how to deal with (Provisional) Sinn Féin at the UUP annual conference in 1999 has been brought back to our attention in recent days – a spectacle choreographed by Trimble.

Besides this, there was a tradition in more conservative Irish republicanism which was also able to look squarely at Ulster Protestants as a people, and was most forcefully articulated by Desmond Fennell in his columns in the ‘Irish Press’ in the 1970s.

This tradition goes all the way back to Father Michael O’Flanagan who said in 1916 that Ulster unionists were “not Irish in the national sense” and should therefore be accorded the same right to decide their nationality as nationalists themselves.

The miracle of 1998 was that the Dublin government and Sinn Féin and the SDLP somehow picked up both this and the dissident Official strain of republicanism, and weaved them into a new confident nationalism that was prepared to co-exist with Ulster unionism rather than seek to defeat it.

The problem today is that this strain of Official republicanism, and that rural conservative Irish republicanism, which could treat unionists as a people in their own right, are virtually dead.

Eoghan Harris, as the most articulate representative of the former’s pluralism, is a voice in the wilderness in the Republic now, and time ran out for the latter with the death of Seamus Mallon.

In fact, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and Fine Gael are all now united in their obeisance to the new religion of virtue signalling on “woke” issues and see Northern Ireland not as an integral part of the United Kingdom but rather as an EU entrepôt.

Leo Varadkar, the prince of this new coalition of woke Hibernians, has recently stated that there are no longer two but three communities/power blocs in Northern Ireland, the third community essentially being those who vote Alliance.

On this basis he has declared, with the enthusiastic approval of the Alliance Party, that with two out of three blocs being in favour of the Protocol, cross-community consent has been secured.

This is an explicit repudiation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement which defined cross-community consent as being contingent upon a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists voting in accord.

For the nationalist/Alliance coalition, unionists are merely an awkward dissident minority to be managed and marginalised.

That wholesale dumping of the principle of cross community consent by a sleight of hand is something which makes David Trimble’s passing even more sad: time has run out on his singular and greatest achievement.

– Neil McCarthy is a writer and teacher based in London

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