Republican News · Thursday 30 March 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Unionism's flight from reality


What were the thoughts running through David Trimble's mind last Saturday as he waited for the votes to be cast by the Ulster Unionist Council? Maybe for a brief moment he considered the fate of previous incumbents of the Ulster Unionist Council leadership.

No one is suggesting that the unionist leaders from O'Neill on all developed Lundyist sentiments on achieving the top job, but you could easily be forgiven for thinking that was the case
On the one hand, there were the three successful holders - Carson, Craig and Brookeborough - who between them constructed the myth of what the academic text books call a `monolithic' unionism. In reality, they forged the world view so prevalent among unionists today.

This vista is a simple one. The Six-County statelet was obviously not the desired solution but was infinitely preferable to being a minority within an Irish state. The task of unionist government was then two-fold. First, oppose any attempt to change or adapt the existing status quo on the basis that it would be a further dilution of the unattainable dream of an Irish British union run by a parliament in Westminster. Secondly, quash any revolt either within the Ulster Unionist ranks and in the wider unionist community without. Having a foot on Fenian necks is sadly taken as a given.

It is recognised by many commentators that Craig's abandonment of multi-seat PR elections in the Six Counties fulfilled two objectives. At one level it nullified and ghettoised nationalist politics and achieved the same feat for intra-unionist opposition to the Ulster Unionists. It also created the dangerous precedent that unionism was an unchanging ideology, a new form of political dogma.

When Brookeborough passed the baton on to Terence O'Neill, the cracks were beginning to show. The problems O'Neill had accommodating the nationalist demands for civil rights and the subsequent spiral into state aggression and violence are well documented. What receives much less comment is the secondary whirlpool he unwittingly created within unionist politics - that of a leadership disallowed from actually leading and negotiating on behalf of its people. Ulster Unionist Party leaders since O'Neill have all shared remarkably common entrances onto the political stage and again remarkably similar exits.

Chichester Clarke, Brian Faulkner, Harry West, James Molyneaux and David Trimble all came to power on the pretext that their predecessor had either failed the unionist cause or had not been dynamic enough in promoting its interests.

Now, with Donaldson or whoever waiting in the wings, it seems possible that the Ulster Unionist party is about to enter the whirlpool again.

Unionist leaders will be deemed successful if they merely repeat the easily learned mantras of post-partition unionism. Anyone straying from the Craig/Brookeborough thesis will be met with contempt, disdain and rejection.

No one is suggesting that the unionist leaders from O'Neill on all developed Lundyist sentiments on achieving the top job, but you could easily be forgiven for thinking that was the case.

What does it say about a political movement that its former leaders are objects of derision and sometimes ridicule? David Trimble, in his Nobel prize winning speech, said that he came from a tradition that was based on the European Enlightenment movement and liberal democratic politics.

These sentiments are not found in the unionist party he leads today. There has been mass amnesia within elements of the UUP with regard to the origins of their party. Unionism was developed as a political tactic by loyalists and conservatives in the late 19th century. They wanted to create a mass political movement for those opposed to Home Rule. Their template for such an organisation was Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party.

In 1885, the Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union was formed. In 1891, the Irish Unionist Alliance. In 1904-1905, the Ulster Unionist Council was formed, and in 1919, the Unionist Anti-Partition League. At its zenith, it elected 26 Unionist MPs in the 1918 general election. Ominous then that the high point of Irish unionism coincided with one of the high water marks in nationalist and republican political development

Much of unionist opposition to Home Rule was on the basis that with an ever extending electoral franchise, Protestants, loyalists and conservatives would become a national minority with an Irish parliament.

This in itself was a remarkable political development, because in 1801, the Orange Order in Dublin and other regions was strongly opposed to the Act of Union. Unionism today is in ignorance or denial of its real history. The circling of the wagons post partition was a circling of their political doctrine also. A failed political tactic mutated into a flawed political ideology.

We hear talk from the Trimble camp of a new unionism. If it really wants to succeed (yes this seems patronising coming from republicans, but it still needs to be said) they should start by reclaiming their own history and learn from the mistakes of the past, both recent and antecedent.

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