Unionism seems stuck in long-term no-man’s-land

Unlike in 1998, unionism today is led by a ‘dig your heels in’ mentality that may lead to its own undoing, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith.

‘We rise from this table knowing that the union is stronger than it was when we first sat down. We know that the fundamental act of union is there, intact.’

These were the words Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble used to greet the masses at the announcement of the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago today.

In a day of speeches, soundbites and “hands of history on our shoulders”, the comment was in many ways sidelined in the memory of those in the Republic.

But, then again, the message was never meant to be directed at this community.

Then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, carries a copy of the Good Friday Agreement as he is followed by the media on his way into a party meeting in the Europa Hotel in Belfast, to discuss the terms of the deal. His party voted to accept the terms.

Two decades ago, the greatest fear within unionism was that while the Good Friday Agreement would bring long overdue peace it would weaken the treasured link to Britain and result in the slow march toward a united Ireland.

And despite Mr Trimble’s insistence to the contrary on April 10, 1998, the reality is that for all the benefits the historic 1998 deal has brought and the dominant position the DUP is currently in, unionism increasingly appears to be stuck in a long-term no-man’s-land.

While the community is acutely aware of what has been gained by the end of the Troubles, it is understandably fearful of its place in a scenario where greater cross-border involvement is taking place alongside a jaded view of Northern Ireland from London, with voters flocking to more extreme parties to protect what they have now as a result.

The clearest example of this issue is the change in roles of the UUP and its rival the Democratic Unionist Party over the past 20 years, which have swapped positions as the middle-ground gave way for the extreme.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

In 1998, it was David Trimble who was both figuratively and literally inside the tent and being heralded as a courageous leader willing to sit down with his enemies, while the late Ian Paisley senior ranted and raved in fierce opposition to the deal outside.

However, while his own comments at the time showed he was aware at significant unionist anger at his decision to sit down and talk, the level of blow-back may have been understated.

In the immediate aftermath of the public vote in favour of the Good Friday Agreement on May 22, 1998, six of the UUP’s 10 MPs walked out of the party to join the DUP, which was the only major party to be outright opposed to the deal.

Just five years later, at the first Assembly election since the Good Friday Agreement had time to bed in, the DUP achieved a key electoral victory in 2003 when they became the largest party in Stormont, eclipsing their long-time rivals in the process.

The situation was repeated in the 2005 Westminster elections that saw the UUP lose all but one MP, Sylvia Hermon, who subsequently became an Independent.

And while many will remember Ian Paisley senior and Martin McGuinness striking up an unlikely Chuckle Brothers routine when the DUP eventually agreed to power-sharing with Sinn Féin in 2007, the reality is the unionist switch to the extreme due to the fear of the future has been a major reason for the repeated Stormont stalemates of the last 15 years, including that occurring today.

It may sound odd to suggest this is an example of unionism’s increasing remoteness in no man’s land, given the fact the DUP remains the largest party in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster remains first minister and the party has the whip hand in Theresa May’s patched together coalition government.

However, in many ways this is exactly what the scenario represents.

The middle-ground has been over-shadowed, a far more entrenched unionist elite has taken hold — and,

if it is not careful, the community that is just as key to lasting physical and political peace in Northern Ireland risks being left behind by a wider political world struggling to understand the unionist position, as last December’s Brexit deal shambles so clearly showed.

Arlene Foster, Theresa May and Martin McGuinness.

While nationalists of all shades of green view the Good Friday Agreement as an almost universally positive step that has not only almost entirely ended the violence in Northern Ireland but also moved a united Ireland — or at least the debate surrounding it — a significant step closer, this is not always the case for unionism.

Yes, the guns have stopped firing, and yes, the daily, over-bearing indiscriminate threat of bomb blasts is over, but the future both for it and the people who hold the link to Britain so dear is far from clear.

Compared to the brave decision to sit down and talk in 1998, unionism today is largely governed by a “dig the heels in and fervently protect what you’ve got” mentality.

While understandable given the legitimate threats of interest from Dublin and ambivalence mixed with ignorance from London and further abroad, such a stance may ultimately be its own undoing, entirely in contrast to what Mr Trimble insisted was the case 20 years ago today.

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