Tony Blair has lost the trust of one section of the decent, middling folk of Britain who otherwise have come to see him as the bearer of their standard. They see him as the caricature the right has tried, without success, to impress on the whole country – as duplicitous, vacillating and weak.
They are the Unionists of Northern Ireland, who see themselves as a people more moral than any other on these islands – more fearful of God and observant of His rituals, more steadfast in resisting the enemies of the British state, more loyal to its symbols and more in tune with its essence. Always deeply distrustful of Labour, they took to Blair when he went to the province soon after his election and said he knew their fears and their hearts – a je vous ai compris lifted from the lexicon of one of his political heroes, Charles de Gaulle, who addressed the phrase to the pieds noirs (French settlers) of Algeria. But de Gaulle betrayed the pieds noirs; he did indeed understand them, but he understood other things, too. The Unionists fear the same fate at Blair’s hands.
David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the only major Unionist party that clings to support for the Belfast (“Good Friday”) Agreement, does not share this view of Blair. He knows that Blair has tried his best. But he cannot keep his party together on that basis. On 8 May, he announced he would resign if the IRA made no substantial moves towards “putting their weapons beyond use” by 1 July. This is not a mere gesture, like John Major’s resignation from the Tory party leadership in mid-term: Trimble’s move is a sign of his desperation.
This being a Presbyterian community, that desperation is expressed in moral, as much as political, terms. The Unionists think they have been taken for honest fools by clever liars. For seven years, British and Irish ministers, the Official Unionist leaders, the nationalist SDLP and even Sinn Fein itself have repeated that Sinn Fein, as the representative on political earth of the IRA, could not be part of peace talks, or of the Northern Ireland Assembly, or of government, without IRA decommissioning. Blair, in a letter sent to Trimble to assist him in selling the agreement to Unionists, said “the process of decommissioning should begin straight away”.
The seven years have been fat ones for republicans. Nearly all their prisoners have been released, most of the Patten report on RUC reforms (hated by the Unionists) has been accepted, and two Sinn Fein MPs are ministers in government. One of them, Martin McGuinness, recently sought to take the high ground by confessing that he was second-in-command of the Derry brigade in the early 1970s – though I, like most reporters who interviewed him at the time, was under the firm impression that he was its commanding officer. In such a role, he could not have avoided at least ordering people to be killed. He is now Minister of Education in the province, something Unionists simply cannot accept with equanimity.
For the Unionists, the seven years have been lean. Split politically, disoriented by Sinn Fein’s sudden leap into legitimacy, increasingly convinced there is no real reciprocity in the agreement, they are now increasingly firm in their rejection of the peace process, and even of the assembly. They are moving to the side of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, the major player among the groups saying that the agreement is a fraud and a snare.
The withdrawal goes deeper than politics. Until the 1970s, the two main sectarian cultures of Northern Ireland remained vibrant and supportive of their own. They were tremendously rich in what is now called “social capital”: the institutions, associations and symbols of unionism and nationalism drew in all sections of the community and, though ultimately coercive, were also an antidote to the alienation that urban life and modernisation were bringing to the rest of the UK.
Religious observance was at American, not British, levels. The Orange lodges and other “loyal” institutions were – as the journalist and historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has shown – the only popular cross-class associations left in the UK. All the family went to see the parades; the memories, on both sides, of a warmer age are sentimentalised, but only in part. Observant strangers to Northern Ireland have always remarked on the dichotomy between the viciousness and the open friendliness. Increasingly, the viciousness predominates.
The further paradox is that this is so in conditions more peaceful than for most of the past three decades. It is no longer an existential experience to walk around the centre of Belfast – or even, within limits, in the “bandit country” of South Armagh. If, however, you live on one of the many postwar or new estates within or around the cities and towns of the province, you are in greater danger – from your “own kind”.
The separation of Protestants and Catholics is, except in a few middle-class areas, more or less complete. Protestant families in Catholic areas, like Catholic families in Protestant areas, are bullied, harassed, their windows broken, their houses burnt, their kids beaten, even their lives threatened – until they move. Few can withstand it.
Having got rid of the Catholic enemy within, the increasingly powerful loyalist gangs – the Ulster Defence Association, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Loyalist Volunteer Force and others – fight each other for control of the shebeens, the drug trade and the protection rackets. These are spreading over to the mainland, and are very lucrative. A paramilitary drug lord can drive a Mercedes, wear Armani suits and take holidays in the Bahamas – a long way from singing “The Sash My Father Wore” on the Shankill, though it is loyalism that provides the discipline and the recruits for his criminal rackets.
Sinn Fein-IRA also control their areas – more firmly than the loyalists, it seems, as the IRA will permit no heretics. It is more ambivalent about the drug trade, at times punishing dealers, usually brutally, but at other times profiting from it. All paramilitaries unite, however, in trying to ensure that their communities fear them: informers are murdered, dissenters tortured and the awkward individuals forced out of their houses, or out of the province. There is a vast and largely ignored community in exile, usually living on the mainland, for whom return to Northern Ireland would mean at best a beating, more often “kneecapping” or murder.
This has got worse since the Belfast Agreement, and may become worse still – even as the province’s unemployment rate decreases and investment rises. The RUC is in turmoil over the recommendations of the Patten report, and faces a retirement surge and a recruitment crisis. The release of prisoners has put back “into the community” hardened men who were leaders of the gangs; the main paramilitary groups (the IRA, the UDA and the UVF) have political representation, and are thus partly immune from close investigation. More cynically, intra-communal repression is less of a problem for the authorities than the bombing of civilians and murders of soldiers and police.
The cancer in the communities of Northern Ireland deepens their alienation from the political process, and makes them more cynical, more sectarian. Sinn Fein, perhaps the most politically skilful of any terrorist-political outfit in the world, is enjoying great success – compare, for example, the decline, evident earlier this month, of the vote for the pro-ETA parties in Spain’s Basque region. In Northern Ireland, the SDLP struggles; it, too, could be a loser in the 7 June elections, and could even lose its predominance in the Catholic-nationalist community to Sinn Fein.
The SDLP, a little late, is fighting back. The party’s chief whip in the assembly, Eddie McGrady, finally took on the Sinn Fein view that Ireland would be united when Catholics outbred Protestants in Northern Ireland, an outcome it expects within the next decade. In the Irish Times, McGrady deplored the “plight of the communities where Sinn Fein currently dominates, where people’s freedom of expression is quashed”, and added that stability cannot be achieved “by a crude head-count based on the religious belief of the 51-per-centers”. But this truth may not save the SDLP in the areas where Sinn Fein has effectively roused the Catholic population with an agenda of revenge.
Faced with such realities, Trimble has pushed himself and his party, once more, to the edge of the crumbling cliff. He calculated that, if he did not do so, Sinn Fein would remain in a win-win situation. If the Unionists continued to support him, Sinn Fein would say that decommissioning was not necessary; if Paisley emerged the victor, Sinn Fein would say that, since you cannot deal with Protestant extremists, the British and Irish governments should give Sinn Fein what it wants. At least if the assembly collapses – as it will if the Unionists withdraw from it – Sinn Fein has something to lose.
So far, Trimble’s tactic has been a success, in the immediate sense that the Ulster Unionist Party has united behind him. But Sinn Fein remains silent. A meeting several weeks ago in Downing Street between Blair and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, produced nothing; a later session between Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, which went on until four in the morning in a west Belfast safe house, also produced nothing. The IRA’s calculation may be that Unionist confusion is better than a Unionist bargaining partner. If so, the agreement will, sooner or later, collapse. It could well be one of Labour’s greatest second-term challenges – but it is also, for the moment, one of the least publicised.