The New Statesman Essay - Ulster: why the left must think again

The Unionists should get more credit for burying old enmities

Much of the left continues to see Northern Ireland unionism as an anachronism, the Royal Ulster Constabulary as bigoted, Northern Ireland Catholics as repressed and the continued Britishness of the province as something that should be gradually whittled away until it becomes a rightful part of the Republic of Ireland.

This is a terrible, potentially tragic mistake. Now that the left is in power, it must develop a better view on the great fault-line in British politics, one that is adequate to its importance. It must see Northern Ireland on all fours with other regions and states that have border disputes, problems of minority representation and/or terrorism. It must judge what happens there against the same criteria that it brings to bear elsewhere: democratic choice, transparency of political actors, equity, peace.

Traditionally, the right sees the creation of Northern Ireland in the early 1920s as an expression of democratic will, a recoil from being forced to live under a republican government imbued with a Catholicism repugnant to the Protestant majority of Ulster. The left sees the revolt led by Edward Carson - who shakes his stone fist still on the drive up to the province's assembly-to-be - as an illegal coup d'etat connived at by large parts of the British establishment and military.

But these debates, for all their interest, offer no guide whatsoever to present political behaviour or arrangements. Neither triumphalism nor revenge, neither recompense nor guilt can produce a civic and democratic settlement. We have no choice but to start from where we are, and identify the knots that can be untied.

Constitutionally, Northern Ireland is part of the UK by international treaty. This must be recognised and respected by all parties aspiring to take a hand in governing the province, even where they wish it otherwise. It is part of Britain, not of Ireland, as South Tyrol is part of Italy, not Austria; as Narva is part of Estonia, not Russia; as Texas is part of the US, not Mexico. In all these regions, a substantial minority or majority are ethnic kin to the citizens of a neighbouring nation and a more or less good historical case can be made out for a transfer of sovereignty. But peace and prosperity and the observation of rights have depended on the resignation of these minorities or majorities to "alien" statehood - and the respect by the "alien" state of fundamentally differing cultural, linguistic and even political features in the region. Where one or other or both of these elements do not exist - as in Nagorno Karabakh, the Armenian-dominated enclave in Azerbaijan - the result is continuing warfare, impoverishment and permanent ruination of lives.

Given a relatively liberal state, this resignation on the part of the non-national group within it is almost always in the best interests of its people, as opposed to its militants. While the unionist majority monopolised political power, as it did until Stormont's abolition in 1972, it is arguable that Northern Ireland was not a liberal state at all; at the very least, it was - in the phrase of David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists - a "cold house for Catholics" who wished to represent their co-religionists. But this claim has become less and less arguable this past quarter-century and it is not at all arguable now, after the signing of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 18 months ago.

That agreement ranks still as Labour's greatest achievement in office, albeit one that owed much to other governments - the previous (Major) administration, the US presidency and the Irish government. The Irish resolve, once the agreement is fully implemented and the Northern Ireland government constituted, to remove articles two and three of its constitution was particularly important. Those articles laid a territorial claim to the north in the cause of a united Ireland. The implication of their removal - as Martin Mansergh, the special adviser to the Irish Taoiseach has made clear in the Times Literary Supplement - is that the position held for much of this century, that Irish unity was Ireland's by right, will be replaced by a mandate based on the will of separate peoples north and south. This would remove the only constitutionally sanctioned irredentist claim in Europe, west or east, and thus remove the largest cause for unionist distrust of Dublin governments.

The agreement was only possible and its endorsement (by over 90 per cent in a referendum) only so great because of the huge social and economic changes in the Republic in the past decade or more; a rapid enrichment, modernisation and secularisation that have dramatically reduced unionist fears of a threat to both living standards and religion. Britain and Ireland now meet as equal states, members of the European Union, rather as Denmark and Germany meet, with dark passages in their mutual pasts but with no casus belli between them.

The British government has, in the agreement, made still more clear what has been implicit since the mid-eighties - that it has no desire to retain Northern Ireland beyond the continuing wish of a majority of its people to remain British. It is made quite clear that there are no strategic, nor colonial, and certainly no economic reasons for the state to keep Northern Ireland. For the first time, it is made explicit what prize both unionists and nationalist parties can win from commanding a majority - the first, continued British citizenship and the second, new Irish citizenship. There is, however, a possibly inevitable asymmetry here: the nationalist parties can lose and lose again elections and referenda on citizenship and still come back for another try; the unionists can lose only once, since there is no provision for a post- unification vote that would unpick the newly unified state.

That has left the unionist community more divided than it has been since the proroguing of the provincial parliament. The largest party, the Ulster Unionists, together with the small "paramilitary" parties, remain pro-agreement (barely); the Democratic Unionists and a section of the now-split Ulster Unionists are strongly against, and seemed to benefit from that in the recent European elections. Polls that show large support for the agreement are only one part of the political reality in Northern Ireland; the polls also show the pro-agreement unionists at a low ebb and strong unionist opposition to seeing Sinn Fein in government.

Trimble continues to cling to a pro-agreement position in spite of this. As Professor Paul Bew of Queens University observes: "Can anyone imagine Tony Blair, who responded so carefully to a much lower-voltage message on the European elections in England, taking on and trying to buck the trend of public opinion in this way?"

The comment gives a sense of the scale of what the Ulster Unionist leadership is attempting. All but unrecognised by the left on the mainland and all but wholly unsaluted, Trimble, with senior figures such as John Taylor, Ken Maginnis, Reg Empey and others, have shifted their part of unionism to an explicit political embrace not just of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which has always been committed to the constitutional road, but of Sinn Fein, provided only that it can demonstrate its renunciation of its violent traditions and its acceptance of democratic and peaceful means. Potentially, the government that would be formed would range from Paisleyite (Democratic Unionists) to republican (Sinn Fein).

After all allowance is made for grandstanding and special pleading, the Ulster Unionist leadership has moved out from the side of a frozen pond to where the ice is very thin indeed and is audibly cracking. It cannot, while the IRA remains terrorist (even if "only" within its own communities), and is shown to be re- arming, work with Sinn Fein. The connections between Sinn Fein and the IRA are simply too opaque for democratic politics. Incredibly, no one seems conclusively to know if Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (the latter would be a cabinet minister in a Northern Irish government) are members of the IRA Army Council, how much influence they have on it, how far the tactics of the two organisations (which are more plausibly still two branches of the same organisation) are co-ordinated and how far Adams and McGuinness are pursuing a strategy of weaning as many as possible of their colleagues away from violence. In an attempt to keep the unionists on board in July, the British and Irish governments announced that the IRA had undergone a "seismic shift" in its thinking and position; no evidence was produced but, since then, the IRA has openly ordered teenagers into exile on pain of death, murdered an alleged informer and attempted to kill another and imported close-combat weapons. It is easy to conclude that the seismic shift is in the opposite direction to that described.

That would be too easy. It is not just members of Sinn Fein and the IRA who are deeply alienated from the Northern Ireland state; many ordinary citizens in the republican areas are alienated, too. It is perfectly clear that, in Belfast, Londonderry and other parts of Northern Ireland, terror is used to stop British citizens calling the police to deal with routine cases of theft or violence. But the removal of that terror is only part of a change in culture. The culture would be highly resistant to any change demanded by British or unionist politicians; it would change most willingly if led to it by politicians it has trusted, even if it has also feared them. The narrative that Adams and McGuinness are working - with much greater caution than Trimble, to be sure - to change that culture still may not be wholly threadbare. It is on that which Trimble, with decreasing support within his own party, is gambling.

Those on the left of British politics must recognise and support his gamble. The slow emergence of civic unionism is one of the greatest breakthroughs in our politics of the past decade - the greater for being encouraged by a bipartisan consensus in Westminster and by governments, such as the Irish and the US, which had been identified with a nationalism hostile to all brands of unionism. It is that on which Tony Blair has placed his hopes for the agreement working. The right's attacks on him are often simply partisan; it, too, has in the past supported the morally ambivalent compromises necessary to achieve something as breathtaking as consensus between unionism and nationalism on governing Northern Ireland.

But Trimble has been operating in a kind of political vacuum. His identification of civic unionism as a force to be supported finds little support on the left.

With the lack of such support and such debate, a unionism that conforms to most of the ideals of the left is allowed to float, without anchor in British politics except for a dwindling number of Conservatives who remain interested in the province and a tiny number of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs and activists who share the view that continued union is the only possible underpinning for a democratic politics and a peaceful resolution.

So Chris Patten's report on the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary - which is published while this issue of the New Statesman goes to press - will be seen as a stick with which to beat recalcitrant and reactionary unionists rather than as a prescription for a police force in a state which aspires to be normal and terrorist-free. The leaks from the Patten Commission indicate that it may not pay enough attention to the transition period; that it assumes a peace not yet in place.

In any event, its proposals have to be judged not against a calculus of which side benefits, but how security is best to be assured. (It will not be assured at all if paramilitaries have any control over the force; nor if it is so stripped of tradition as to lose organisational coherence; nor if a necessary rooting out of bigotry and discrimination is accompanied by mass summary dismissals.) The RUC is itself a culture and part of a wider one, whose suspicions and fears are no less rooted than republican equivalents. It has a duty to change, because it is a public body with sweeping powers over the freedoms and rights of citizens. But if respect is given to the necessary slowness of change in republican culture, so it must be given to hardline unionism and even to the RUC.

The Belfast Agreement proposes peaceful competition between parties and political positions that have, at best, distrusted and vilified, at worst murdered, each other for much of the 20th century. It is the most audacious political proposition we have seen from this government - hugely underestimated in left discourse. It is a responsibility of the left to understand it and see it for what it is; and to understand what is required for political competition in Northern Ireland to remain as peaceful as it has been, and for peace and democratic choice to reach into those areas where it is presently denied.

We have to rise to a recognition of the potential, of the moral urgency - and of the abyss that real failure would bring.