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17 July 2003 Edition

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Road to nowhere

BY PAUL O'CONNOR


     
All but the most blinkered recognise they must concede some measure of equality to nationalists, but every measure of equality conceded undermines the reason for unionism's existence
It only seems like yesterday that Johnny Adair and his cohorts were strutting around outside Drumcree Church, while young loyalists hurled stones and fireworks at the lines of police and soldiers drawn up below. How often did Orangemen portray Drumcree as their Alamo, a last stand in which their whole tradition was at stake? Today, that bluster has been replaced by farce. If Drumcree was the Orange Order's chosen battleground, it has turned out not their Alamo, but their Waterloo.

One doesn't expect a very keen sense of the ridiculous from people whose idea of a Sunday outing is to don bowler hats, drape pieces of orange cloth around their shoulders and annoy their neighbours by parading sour-faced down streets where they're not wanted. But surely even the Orangemen can see how farcical the annual ritual at Drumcree has become?

Yet they still refuse to talk to the Garvaghy residents - unless the residents agree in advance to let the parade through. Which kind of takes from the point of negotiation, doesn't it? "We'll talk to you, so long as you agree to all of our demands beforehand."

It is reported that various intermediaries are working behind the scenes to reach an agreement before next year's parade. Indeed, it seems the Portadown Orangemen are talking to everybody but the Garvaghy residents. But they have yet to do the one thing that matters - accept the right of nationalists to object to sectarian marches going through their areas, and sit down with them to negotiate a solution. They still do not accept nationalists as equals.

Drumcree represents in miniature the cul de sac into which unionism has walked itself. This week saw the crisis in the Ulster Unionist Party deepen, as the three dissident MPs won a judgement from the High Court in Belfast declaring their suspension from the party illegal. This is a further blow to David Trimble's authority. But it also begs the question - where are Jeffrey Donaldson, David Burnside and Martin Smyth headed? Donaldson has already challenged Trimble on 12 occasions within the Ulster Unionist Council, and has been defeated each time. In his comments outside the court, his wish seemed to be that Trimble would come over to his position. "It is time for Mr Trimble to start listening to what we have to say instead of resorting to a rulebook he cannot even interpret," said Donaldson.

Meanwhile, the dissidents are neither in nor out of the party. Ulster Unionism is effectively paralysed. Unionism seems to be imploding, with the DUP at daggers drawn with the UUP, the UUP at war with itself, the loyalists feuding, and David Trimble quarrelling with almost everyone. Bolton Council might soon face housing applications from the rump of the Ulster Unionist Party, as well as the dregs of 'C' Company!

Republicans are unlikely to feel much sympathy for Trimble. He is largely the author of his own woes. Having signed up to the Agreement, he has since done his best to make it unworkable, through repeatedly pulling down the Executive and making demands on Sinn Féin that are entirely outside the terms of the accord. By failing to sell the benefits of the Agreement to unionists and constantly pandering to the "no" lobby, he had fuelled the forces of rejectionism to the point where he is no longer in control of his own party.

But if the rejectionists gain control, what have they to offer the people of the Six Counties, or indeed their own constituents? On Monday, the DUP launched a policy document, "Towards a New Agreement". Groundbreaking it was not. Ian Paisley said No to the Good Friday Agreement, No to negotiations with Sinn Féin, No to any Executive in which Martin McGuinness was a minister, No to Dublin's "interference" in the North... Why doesn't he just get out Carson's old speeches and save the trouble of writing his own?

Unionism is in a mess. It cannot accept a future built around equality and justice, neither can it offer any alternative vision of its own. As a result, its energies are consumed in internal bickering and division.

In this, unionism is true to its history and character. It has always been a purely reactionary, negative ideology. Think of the visionary or inspirational slogans coined by republicans down the centuries, from Tone's ambition "to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter" to our own "Ireland of Equals". Then, think of the slogans which encapsulate the Unionist vision: "Ulster says No", "Not an Inch". What principles does unionism subscribe to, besides a die-hard defence of the status quo? To what future does it aspire, that is not a barely-disguised return to the past?

Orangeism began in the 1790s when, fearing an alliance between Catholics and liberal Presbyterians, the colonial authorities responded by stoking sectarian tensions. Dublin Castle and reactionary local magistrates used economic rivalries over land and Protestant suspicion of Catholicism to persuade many Protestants their interest lay in "loyalty" to the crown. Gangs of "loyalists" were soon burning out Catholics in Armagh, Monahan, south Down and Louth; and these formed the basis of the Orange Order, which was founded in Armagh in 1795.

Likewise, political unionism in its modern form began in response to the Home Rule Bill of the 1880s. The British Conservative Party deliberately whipped up Protestant fears of Catholic domination and subordination of industrial Belfast to the agrarian South to embarrass the Liberal government. The raison d'Ítre of unionism and the Union has always been inequality, the belief of Protestants that the Union would secure them economic prosperity and political power denied to their Catholic neighbours.

This is why unionists can come up with no strategy other than a dogged resistance to change. All but the most blinkered recognise they must concede some measure of equality to nationalists, but every measure of equality conceded undermines the reason for unionism's existence. Historically, the Union conferred on its supporters the privilege of a beggar on horseback, lording it over his neighbour who goes on foot. If the horse is taken away and its rider must walk on common earth with everyone else, unionism is left without a rationale. But peace can come on no other terms.

So how should republicans regard the disarray within unionism? On the one hand, it may further delay the full implementation of the Agreement. But in the longer term, unionism can only emerge more divided and discredited from its present turmoil.

Trimble is the only unionist leader with any credibility outside of unionism's own ranks, the only one with a reputation as a "peacemaker". His leadership is now fatally undermined. Who can take unionism seriously when the DUP is its largest party and Ian Paisley its de facto leader? By all means, let the old sectarian dinosaur have the limelight he craves; the bankruptcy of unionism will be displayed to all. Meanwhile, the UUP will either be taken over by the rejectionists or irrevocably split. Either way, the policy of "saving Dave" by concessions to the No brigade is near the end of its shelf life. Perhaps the British government may have one last go; but soon "Dave" will be beyond saving, or else secure in the leadership of a shrunken pro-Agreement Unionist Party.

Republicans must take the long view, focusing on the direction we're travelling, not the roadblocks, on the relative potential of republicanism and unionism in the future rather than each recurrent crisis. We would have reason to fear a unionism which showed the capacity to modernise and re-imagine itself. A unionism capable of offering a progressive and inclusive future for all the people of the Six Counties would pose a serious threat to the prospect of Irish unity. But in our republican analysis, such a unionism would be a contradiction in terms. And events are proving that analysis right.

Each step towards equality for nationalists has seen unionism spin further into the abyss of negativity, in-fighting and division. It has no positive future to offer even its own community.

Like the Drumcree Orangemen, unionism is parading solemnly towards a dead end.
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