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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 111: July 2003

[Return to related issue of Nonviolent News.]

The choice for Unionism - 'Principle' or 'Pragmatism'?

The ongoing battle for supremacy in the Ulster Unionist Party continues with there being little chance of a rapprochement between what can conveniently and in a very loose fashion be called Trimbleites and Donaldsonites; this is in a political party where the grassroots has always wielded very considerable power. Perhaps this time it really is a fight to the death, the death of one or other part of the party.

David Trimble's vote at the last Ulster Unionist Council meeting slipped slightly to 54% but that is still a percentage in his favour. Now the legal manoeuvring and the pressure from the Orange Order and others is continuing the high drama. Fortunately the 'marching season' has kicked off to a peaceful start without trouble at Drumcree so hopefully it will not be a long hot sectarian summer to add further pressure.

Jeffrey Donaldson depicts himself and the 'no' faction in the party as the principled ones, those who will not sit down in government with terrorists, those who seek to renegotiate the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement to get a result more favourable to Unionists. Given that much Unionist support for the Good Friday Agreement has evaporated over issues such as release of prisoners, policing reforms, and own goals by Sinn Féin like the alleged spying incident at Stormont, there is bound to be Unionist unease. Yet the devolved institutions of government are popular with people of almost all political views so that, with time, the pendulum would presumably have swung, or still swing, back to greater support.

We have stated in this space before that a renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement is not impossible but would be so difficult as to be a pyrrhic victory (which is what Donaldson accused Trimble of after the last Unionist Party vote). The idea that the SDLP, let alone Sinn Féin, are going to sign up to anything that would be more advantageous to Unionists is highly unlikely if not impossible.

The Good Friday Agreement has been painful for Unionists. But their spleen at this juncture seems more a case of them expecting their own way again rather than a careful assessment of the politics of the possible. The 'no' camp seem to be demanding the impossible. Because if the Good Friday Agreement was painful for Unionists it was just as, or even more, painful for republicans; Northern Ireland remains a kind of British state and Sinn Féin have entered a partitionist parliament, something which seemed impossible fifteen years ago. In other words, unionism won, admittedly a limited victory but a victory nevertheless, and there is no gain without pain in a situation like Northern Ireland.

But there is one point which is worth challenging in Northern Ireland as in other societies which are heavily divided on ethnic, sectarian or other lines. Stronger sectarian voices on either side can proclaim the purity of their message, the justness of their cause, the injustice of the current situation, and so on. That is how sectarian politics has traditionally operated in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement was one of the first times that people and politicians have said 'enough, we want the politics of cooperation'.

Cooperation, compromise and pragmatism are more important principles in divided societies than purity of doctrine or individual self interest. If we are sure of what we are, what we want ideally, but not in an obsessive way, then we can sit down and be prepared to compromise, a dirty word in the Northern Ireland lexicon. We can still work for our principles, still try to persuade others, but the reality of a multicultural society is that there has to be such compromises. Cooperation and compromise at a societal level are a vital principle in Northern Ireland's sectarian society. That does not seem to be a lesson which the Donaldsonites have learned. There can be principle and pragmatism together.

Northern Ireland has often found the process since the ceasefires of nine years ago to be a difficult one. Further difficulties remain but much has been dealt with, even if unsatisfactorily according to some. If battles continue within the Unionist party then there can be no agreement on anything substantial. And if the Unionist Party splits there is the question of how the ongoing power will fall; in the past the 'liberals' (as with the Faulknerite power-sharing unionists of 1974) have melted like the snow. This time it may be different but whatever way the political geography of unionism may end up, it spells ongoing infighting and trouble for a considerable time to come. And without a settled situation for unionism then the whole of Northern Ireland will continue to suffer from the resultant fallout and instability.

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