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8 January 2004 Edition

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Beneath Craigavon's Shadow


It was supposed to be a triumphant procession but somehow the notion of descent, of coming down a step or two, even a whiff of the abyss, accompanied Jeffrey Donaldson down Stormont's marble staircase as he and his new colleagues this week staged his defection to the DUP for the media.

Donaldson declared himself "proud" to be taken on by "Dr Paisley" and the DUP. "It is a team that I believe is capable of providing leadership to the unionist community. It will not be like the leadership of the party I have left, a leadership that did not know how to negotiate properly, a leadership that has failed the unionist community," said Donaldson.

Fellow 'dissidents' David Burnside and Martin Smyth failed to join Donaldson in his move from the UUP to the DUP but he was accompanied by Arlene Foster and Norah Beare. The defection of three standing MLAs reduced the UUP's Assembly seats to 24 and increased the number of DUP seats to 33. As a sitting MP, Donaldson's defection has also rendered the DUP the largest northern party in Westminster.

And Ian Paisley was there to relish the moment. It was a historic day for unionism, said Paisley. Unionism was moving forward not back, "certainly not going back to a table to try and get armed terrorists once again into the government of Northern Ireland", insisted the DUP leader. In DUP doublethink, 'moving forward' is just rhetoric for going nowhere.

And many media commentators believe that's just where Jeffrey Donaldson is headed. The DUP leadership may have been prepared to entice Jeffrey with the promise of a place on the negotiating team but as Tom McGurk of the Sunday Business Post pointed out, Donaldson "may well have chosen the wrong ship to board".

"Can you think of a more dangerous scenario for the ambitious young Jeffrey than that in which Young Ian is circling Peter, circling Dodds and circling Sammy?" Can the steel factories of Sheffield supply enough knives for the faction fight after the Big Man's departure?" asked McGurk.

So was it an historic or merely a histrionic day for unionism? From under the dark statue of Craigavon it was hard to tell. Towering above the DUP's latest recruits, the unionist icon stared directly ahead, his immobilised form the perfect metaphor for the moment. For here was unionism preserved in aspic.

And the image was no coincidence. When Peter Robinson joined Paisley for a photo call with Donaldson and his two satellites under the shadow of Craigavon, their message was clear to both unionists and nationalists.

For Brian Feeney of the Irish News, the message couldn't have been bleaker. "Unionists believe they own the North and will not accord equal status to nationalists' political aspirations," said Feeney. "They're saying you can't share in running this place if you're not a unionist and there's no indication they'll ever say different."

Indeed, Feeney's vision of politics in the Six Counties has become so bleak that you begin to half expect this long time anti-republican to call for armed insurrection as the only logical corollary to his analysis. Steady, Brian, steady.

The unionist veto has indeed a long and ignoble history here in the north but it is not simply a matter of a 6-4 majority in the Assembly or the fact that "unionists haven't changed since power-sharing was first proposed in 1972".

Unionist domination in the Six Counties, since the imposition of partition, has been underpinned by the mass repression of the nationalist community. It has taken many forms, from the stark brutality of sectarian pogroms to mass detention through internment, from forced emigration through the sectarian denial of homes and jobs to disenfranchisement, from kangaroo courts to extra judicial executions.

The difference between then and now is very simple. Mass repression of the nationalist community is no longer a viable option. The northern nationalist community has emerged out of 30 years of conflict more focused, more confident and more ambitious. That's the political reality both unionism and the British are now being forced to come to terms with. The genie is out of the bottle and any attempt to replace the stopper only acknowledges the past; it cannot return it.


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