Not just a name
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
Nobody who takes a real and positive interest in Irish politics underestimates the challenges and uncertainties the peace process throws up for Ulster Unionism. However, the last week has seen the concerns of unionists become translated into attempted coercion of nationalists and republicans. Nationalist Ireland is once again being coerced by the unionists, who are using general support throughout Ireland for the re-establishment of the Good Friday institutions as a bargaining chip for more concessions.
This throws up the question as to what to actually do about the Ulster Unionist backtracking and dissembling. This is made all the more important in the light of the decision by Peter Mandelson to also backtrack and prevaricate on the Joint Statement reached two weeks ago at Hillsborough.
Unionists have often confused democratic politics with simple majoritarianism, but their demands on Patten go a step further than this
This week, Mandelson, both in a letter to David Trimble and speaking in Westminster, outlined his position of deferring a decision on the issue of a name for a reformed police force.
Mandelson's actions have amplified the problems in the peace process this week. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has highlighted the concern felt in the nationalist community about the role being played by the British government. Adams said that he believed that the unionist prevarication and
backtracking ``has been encouraged... by the attitude of the British government''.
So what should the response be to the Ulster Unionist demands? One point of view is the attitude of `what's in a name?'. The logic of this argument is that here we are so close to a possible return to the Executive and the re-establishment of the other all-Ireland institutions that the vast majority of Irish people clearly want so why not concede on these small petty issues? After all, we have to be mindful of unionist sensitivities of nationalist or republican domination and a refusal to recognise how important these symbols are, etc. We have all heard these arguments again and again, usually in the safe confines of the Sunday Times or the studios of RTE.
It is one course of action but it would be a wrong one. There are at least three reasons why there should be a firm no to unionist demands on Patten and the flags issue.
The first is the very simple fact of the republican experience over the last six years. We have endured what has been at times an endless trawl through a vast range of preconditions erected by the unionists and the British government to sap the dynamic of the peace process, to stall it and at times
even to try and kill it.
It is remarkable that at one stage in the contacts between the republicans and the British government in 1993, there was to be a weeklong cessation with round table talks between the two parties. The republicans assented and the line from London went strangely dead.
Then we had the `was the cessation permanent' debacle, the decontamination period, the waiting to meet Mayhew period, the stalling on all-party talks, the bogus elections and assembly. Then it was decommissioning; then it was the how and the when of decommissioning. Two weeks ago, the IRA once again took the initiative and made substantial moves to break the log jam stalling the peace process.
The new road blocks erected by Trimble and the UUP are just that, road blocks and preconditions, nothing else. In the aftermath of the IRA's Easter statement, David Trimble said: ``The IRA has vindicated the Secretary of State's decision and, through its own stubborn refusal to commit itself to peace by word and deed, has put off the day when Northern Ireland politicians administer Northern Ireland affairs.''
Now, with a new initiative from the IRA, it is once again the Ulster Unionists who are found wanting. It has been shown yet again that it is clearly they who are putting off the day when Irish politicians administer Irish affairs.
The second issue arising from Unionist stalling is why these symbols are so important to unionists. Isn't it interesting that they are not actually saying that the RUC shouldn't be reformed, even though that is clearly the core of their thinking. They want to hold onto the name and the union flag because it implies ownership. It implies control. It has never been made clear by anyone in the unionist leadership why they so need this comfort blanket.
The sky didn't fall in when the Dublin government cavalcade of Mercedes cars nosed across the border. It didn't fall in when the Executive sat. So why would it fall if the people of the Six Counties woke up and found themselves without the RUC and with the NIPS? There clearly isn't a principle at stake. The sad reality is that it is just another precondition.
One possible place to discuss the name of the RUC and what flag to hoist is in the Assembly. Here then, is the nub of the issue. How many republicans wake up and thank God there is a Six-County Assembly? They don't, and for many there were serious misgivings about the formation of such a body and Sinn Féin's participation in it, especially when it was so clearly at variance with republican aspirations.
Isn't it strange that unionists don't want to let the very body that they lobbied so hard to be set up debate and decide on this important issue.
Maybe it is because when it comes down to the wire, unionists cannot handle real legislative debate. They have often confused democratic politics with simple majoritarianism, but their demands on Patten go a step further than this.
Last February, David Trimble pronounced that ``society as a whole in Northern Ireland has a right to judge the quality of the IRA's commitment to decommissioning''. This week, Irish society is judging Ulster Unionism on the same basis that it has judged others. So far, the verdict is not looking good.