Unionism’s validity is disappearing

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

There has been a flurry of comment on Gerry Adams’s remarks last Thursday, especially the bit where he said that the IRA might have to go out of business in order to remove any excuse from unionists for refusing to negotiate or work the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

Few people noticed the much more lengthy and detailed analysis of the republican position presented by Pat Doherty in Geneva last Friday. It’s an example of how cohesive the republican leadership is, for in essence Gerry Adams and Pat Doherty were playing variations on a theme. In marked contrast to the chaos in the DUP where the congenitally intemperate knee-jerk remarks of Ian Og had to be finessed by other, nameless DUP figures at pains to say Adams’s words could be quite a ‘significant development’. Adams must have been secretly delighted when Ian Og instantly made his point for him. A bit like Jim Molyneaux’s reaction to the ceasefire. What do we do now? Oh no, not politics? Has no-one told Ian Og, or is he just too thick politically to get the message? Duh.

The second observation is that the SF speeches are part of a long process of preparing the ground in the republican movement. Months ago a senior figure, very close to Gerry Adams, told journalists that if the British and unionists had worked the agreement, the IRA would already have ceased to be. There is no-one in unionism preparing the ground for any change at all, except perhaps Jeffrey Donaldson and he’s too recent a DUP convert to count.

Which brings us to Pat Doherty’s speech and the ground unionists have to prepare. Doherty said that ‘unionism’s future, and this is the core of the Good Friday Agreement, is with the rest of the people of Ireland in terms freely entered into by us all’.

In other words, the challenge facing unionists is to reach an accommodation with the rest of the people on the island.

Adams asked, ‘Are they up to it?’ Well, are they?

In the short term the answer is no. First because not one of the unionist leaders has a clue what their goal is. Ask them where they want to be in ten years time and you’ll get no coherent political answer. No answer for the simple reason that the whole point of unionism was and remains a device to preserve special status for the diminishing minority in Ireland. If they are required to live on equal terms with their rights guaranteed, then there’s no point in unionism.

A second difficulty Pat Doherty didn’t address is that unionists aren’t the only problem. Tony Blair’s officials think they are engaged in modernising unionism, not pointing them towards the rest of Ireland . Doherty was quite tolerant with Blair’s failure to hold unionists’ feet to the fire partly because to be otherwise would be to admit that Sinn Féin might have been co-opted into making the north of Ireland a workable entity.

Doherty did however admit that the north remains a unionist state, that all its agencies and institutions remain unionist. He could also have pointed out that of all the bodies established under the agreement, like the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Judicial Appointments Commission etc, not a single one has a nationalist chairperson, even though these are matters of vital importance to nationalists. Nor did he point out that the structure and personnel of all these bodies have been created by mainly English pro-union officials who do not want to see any change in the north other than the minimum required to keep the place fundamentally the same.

So while the DUP refuses to engage in negotiations with SF until the IRA surrenders its weapons and disbands, at least we know the party will engage in public responses to SF leaders who have tossed the ball in before formal talks begin in three weeks time. Remember though, all the DUP is talking about is whether it will talk.

What we don’t know is whether the British still accept the view outlined in the various joint declarations of the 1990s, that led to the agreement, namely that the goal is to reconcile unionists to living on equal terms with the rest of the people on the island, or whether Blair’s pro-union advisers will prevail. If so, since they see Britain’s aim as upholding the Union, then their objective in negotiations will be not to convince the DUP to make a historic deal with the rest of the Irish people, but instead to find a way of reconciling northern nationalists to live in a modernised unionist state, an oxymoron. So which is it?

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