4 August 2005 Edition
Pushover or leftover unionism?
Apparently no one told the DUP. DUP Assembly members were holding their regular Monday morning meeting in Stormont when a telephone call alerted Jeffery Donaldson to news reports of the disbandment of the 'Home Service'‚ battalions of the RIR. "It came like a bolt out of the blue," admitted one DUP MLA. "It was a bomb shell,'' said his party colleague.
As "complete shock" was replaced by "deep, deep anger" the DUP described their "utter sense of betrayal". A few months earlier a parliamentary question about the future of this locally-recruited unionist militia had been tabled by the DUP in the British House of Commons. It had elicited the usual re-assurance.
Clearly unable to grasp the emerging reality, Ian Paisley responded to news of the RIR disbandment by repeating his party's favourite mantra. "The era of pushover unionism is over," he said.
Branding their political rivals as "pushover" unionists had served Ian Paisley well during the last election campaign in which the UUP vote had collapsed in the face of the confrontational stance of the DUP.
But suddenly the British Government was neither seeking their opinion nor eliciting their support. Unionism, whether "pushover" or belligerent, had been sidelined. It was looking more like a case of leftover unionism. No wonder Paisley was "furious".
Worse still the DUP had been the architects of their own difficulties. By refusing to share power with nationalists unionism has abandoned the right to exercise influence in the political decision making process which was beginning to shape its future.
The British Secretary of State Peter Hain had slipped the announcement of the RIR disbandment amidst a wider programme of 'normalisation', just two days before he was scheduled to take a month-long summer vacation. Well it was hardly cricket as far as the unionists were concerned.
"The Secretary of State should be aware that of all the political parties in Northern Ireland, the DUP needs devolution the least and whilst we have no control over many decisions that the government takes, we do have a veto on the return of devolution," said Paisley.
Of course no control and refusing to take control are two quite different things. In the short term, in its determination to thwart the power sharing project of the Good Friday Agreement, unionism might be able to sell the veto as a strategy. But sooner or later their electorate are surely going to demand that their elected representatives actually represent them.
Historically the veto has been a mechanism of unionist control but, while the rhetoric might sound the same, unionism has been so weakened that the veto can now only be exercised as a mechanism of relinquishing control. In other words unionism can thwart power sharing but only at the price of its own exercise of power.
A week ago the DUP had been confident in its relationship with the British Government. Republicans had endured months of vilification by the British at the behest of rejectionist unionism. But last Thursday the political landscape had been changed and changed utterly by the courageous unilateral decision of the IRA to end its armed campaign and dump its arms. Suddenly the old sureties no longer seemed so secure.
Remember the old adage- be careful what you wish for. Last week unionism was faced with just such an eventuality and was thrown into immediate disarray. At first they managed to put a good face on it. "The words of the IRA count for nothing," declared Ian Paisley.
The normalisation programme is "a surrender to the IRA and is further evidence of bad faith on the part of the government".
"We are appaled at the dishonest and dangerous approach of the government. This bilateral agreement between the government and the IRA will have serious consequences."
"The IRA statement is neither historic nor credible," said Paisley, "remember the words of the IRA count for nothing. The proof of the IRA pudding will be in the eating. They can wrap this statement up in any way they want but it is action, not words, that will count."
Describing the decision to disband the RIR as "deplorable" UUP leader Reg Empey said, "the announcement has come before any acts of completion by republicans in contradiction of the government's own promise on the matter".
"No more deceit, we want action", announced the front page of the Newletter.
But events on the ground soon gave lie to the unionist position as the British Army began dismantling its fortifications. Apparently the word of the IRA was good enough for them. "That shows that soldiers, whether the soldiers of the IRA or soldiers of the British Army are prepared, to some degree, to trust each other," said Sinn Féin's Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness.
The DUP was outraged. As British soldiers were flown into South Armagh to begin work on the removal of a number of hilltop forts, DUP MLA Arlene Foster described the British Government's decision as "criminally irresponsible. The government seems quite happy to act on words alone."
UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy was equally "outraged" that the British Government had "decided to act on IRA words alone".
"With the ink not even dry on yesterday's IRA statement, it is absolutely outrageous that the government has decided to embark on such a major security scale down," said Kennedy.
Unionist paramilitaries were treating the IRA statement with "great suspicion. Republicans must believe we are within touching distance of a united Ireland," said UDA leader Jackie McDonald.
"If there was any plan in the next number of years to bring about a united Ireland, loyalism and unionism would rebel against it", said McDonald.
Meanwhile, internecine feuding between rival unionist paramilitary groups claimed another victim as 29-year-old Stephen Paul was shot dead by the UVF. A second man was injured during the shooting.
A member of the LVF Paul had served a number of jail terms, one for a serious assault of a girlfriend and has been connected to the illegal drugs trade. In previous weeks the feud has claimed two other lives, Jameson Lockhart (25) and Craig McCausland (20).
Of course it's one thing to demilitarise the northern landscape but quite another to demilitarise the unionist mindset.