Beleaguered Unionists Gerry OShea
of losers’ consent is central to American politics since Donald Trump refused
to acknowledge the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory in the last presidential
election. It also provides an important prism on political developments in
Northern Ireland, although not in arguments about election results.
Trimble, the leader of the Official Unionist Party, played a central role in
negotiating The Good Friday Agreement (GFA), many unionists viewed the terms of
the deal as a sell-out to Irish nationalism. In particular, they looked askance
at provisions that mandated the release of all IRA prisoners and the
replacement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary with the Police Service of
many international leaders justifiably laud the 1998 agreement which has
largely ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a recent poll revealed that
only 34% of unionists view it favorably. They still believe after twenty-five
years that the other side, nationalists and republicans, are the main
commentators see a blatant contradiction in the Protestant reaction to the
agreement. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, consistently identified as
their core belief that the northern state is a failed political entity, contrived
to divide the people, and so the only solution, according to their ideology, must
involve British withdrawal followed by some version of a united Ireland.
they believed firmly that compelling Britain to exit Ireland could only be
achieved using the bomb and bullet. In the GFA, Republicans promise to give up
this central plank of their philosophy and to rely solely on the ballot box to
achieve their goals. They affirm now that their weapons have been
decommissioned and that a united country can only be achieved by political
persuasion. Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom until a
majority of the people there opt for change.
significant concession by the Provisional movement was the main point of
contention with the two protesting republican offspring named the Real IRA and
the Continuity IRA. Based on maintaining the pristine purity of past rhetoric,
these small groups claim that they have traditional republican logic on their
side. Partition is still in place, so the war must go on!
made clear during the Troubles that they would never allow a united Ireland
which was and still is contrary to the wishes of the majority. The GFA solidifies
this position but their paranoid mentality seems to turn victory into
fear-driven trepidation about losing.
From their perspective, any change from the status quo must be resisted.
partition of the island over a hundred years ago, the unionist majority has
behaved like a beleaguered tribe while dominating political life in the Six
Counties. The Ulster Covenant of 1912, a document signed by a quarter million
people and backed by an armed Protestant volunteer force of over 100,000 men, threatened
to use any means necessary to prevent Irish Home Rule.
the unionist leader in Westminster and a member of the powerful cabinet during
the Great War, warned the prime minister and the government leaders that his
constituents were deadly serious when they proclaimed that they would die
rather than submit to rule by a Dublin parliament where Roman Catholics would
While the Westminster
Government led by Lloyd George showed little sympathy or respect for the demands
of Irish nationalists, they realized that dividing a small island at the behest
of a loud and persistent minority was a recipe for future tumult. Still, they
disregarded the long-term implications of partition and caved into unionist
threats, political and paramilitary.
On June 22nd, 1921, King George V pleaded for
harmony when he officially opened the Belfast parliament. Nobody doubted when Sir
James Craig, the first prime minister, declared his leadership of a Protestant
parliament for a Protestant people, which according to his explicit boast would
continue forever, ad aeternum.
Not even the
wildest nationalist dreamer from the past could imagine a day when the First
Minister in the parliament descended from the Craig/Carson creation would be a
devoted Irish Republican whose father had served time for “the cause.” James
Craig, Basil Brooke, James Chichester-Clark, all bulging with ascendancy titles,
and now Michelle O’Neill, with a strong Republican pedigree, a nationalist
leader from a working-class background.
Friday Agreement wisely doesn’t allow for the winner-take-all system that
prevails in most democracies. The binary unionist/nationalist division must be
represented at every government level. It does not allow for the domination
that prevailed in the past.
There is now an important third space occupied
mostly by young, well-educated citizens who no longer subscribe to the ethos that
divides people according to religious affiliation.
often support Alliance candidates. This party promotes its non-sectarian agenda
with pride, and its support continues to grow in both communities. They do not
take sides on the constitutional issue that bisects the rest of the statelet.
It is hard for any political party in the North to eschew the unity question,
but Alliance manages so far to stick to this non-position.
obstacle to success will come from the strong rejectionist wing of the
Democratic Unionist Party. Their leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has spent two
years trying to alter the terms of the Windsor Agreement signed by leaders in
Brussels and Westminster. However, the changes he negotiated are only tangential,
and his hardliners are raising the old cries of a sellout.
the Alliance Party leader, is pessimistic as she bemoans “the fragility of
relationships, not just between the parties but inside some parties.” She shakes
her head as she sees major obstacles to progress in the immediate future.
O’Neill, the Sinn Fein First Minister consistently focuses on neglected
internal issues like health care and education. She shares leadership in the resuscitated
parliament with another woman, Emma Little-Pengelly, a member of the Democratic
Unionist Party, who is equally adamant that they must set aside constitutional
arguments and concentrate on bread-and-butter issues.
are promising that these two talented women can lead Northern Ireland in a different
direction. We hope the wind will blow strongly on their backs.
OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com