The Progressive Unionist Dilemma

I studied Irish Politics as a postgraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast between 2001 and 2006, becoming friendly with a range of unionist and nationalist political representatives who were also studying there at the time. At that stage the unionist political fraternity was fairly active, though the DUP were hoovering up some of the most effective Young Unionists as they capitalised on the UUP’s vulnerability on the issue of IRA decommissioning.

Although I was not politically active myself (but, nevertheless, fairly close to the analysis of the PUP), I had been approached to write a piece for the UUP’s student edited publication Ulster Review, which would place the Progressive Loyalist analysis in its wider political context.

The article was written in late 2002 and published in the June 2003 edition. It sought to analyse the PUP’s political direction in light of the leadership provided by its MLAs, David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, with an eye on the violence that still plagued loyalist and republican communities at the time.

‘Jumping Ship’ or Tightening up a Leaking Bulkhead? The Progressive Unionist Dilemma

Aaron Edwards offers an alternative analysis of the current political crisis

Sinking the Devolutionary Project

The Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ is currently in a stationary position. The Provisional IRA, it seems, are to blame. Columbia, Castlereagh and Castle-buildings – Bertie Ahern’s three ‘C’s – have aptly served to illustrate, or inadvertently expose, the capabilities of what still remains a well-oiled military machine. Instead of entering into a semi-retirement scheme of ‘voluntary’ decommissioning, whereby a few rusty old guns and some caked-over semtex are put beyond use, Irish republicans have been working overtime at perfecting their “dual approach to the peace process”.

Similarly, recent events appear to add buoyancy to the anti-Agreement argument that old adages are now, conveniently, being exchanged for new ones. No longer is it a military or political necessity to stubbornly follow the proven strategy of “an armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other”. What we now seem to be witnessing is the exportation of indispensable resources from an indigenous Irish terrorist laboratory, on the one hand, and the skilful advances of a seasoned Public Relations apparatus on the other. Either way both programmes are operated concurrently, by the leadership of the Republican Movement, in a bid to placate militarist personnel, whilst permitting non-combatant politicos to continue to project themselves, domestically and internationally, as marshals in the cause of peace in Ireland. Whether such anti-Agreement pessimism is warranted, or not, these operations do ultimately tell us more about the internal dynamics of the Provisional IRA than they do about their public endorsement of the ‘peace’ and ‘political’ processes.

From the perspective of mainstream republican disciples and their sympathetic flock, this twin-track approach remains a stabilising foothold on the preordained ‘stepping stone’ route towards a united Ireland. While nationalist bags are packed for eventual territorial completion, and a 32 county state in the sun, unionism has been plunged into periodic crisis and despondency in its haste to counter republican determinism. What, then, are the consequences of this invigorated republican confidence in their chosen ‘peace strategy’ and why do loyalists, in particular, perceive it as a cynical ploy to “kick the oxygen out of the process”?

Gasping for Breath

While republicans continue to portray their personnel as a principled band of faceless good Samaritans, eager to resuscitate the terminally ill patient that is the Good Friday Agreement, loyalists, seemingly, have resorted to imitating the past actions of their political and paramilitary adversaries. This fine dance between rival combatant ideologies has now, most strikingly, resulted in the UVF and RHC breaking off contact with the International Decommissioning Body thereby placing the process in further jeopardy – or has it?

While there is certainly profit to be made by retreating to a position where wielding a ‘big stick’ in the face of an enemy strengthens your supporters’ resolve, more so than the supine acceptance of meagre scraps from a perfunctory negotiating table, it seems likely that loyalists have made these moves for ‘housekeeping’ reasons. Some cynics have hastened to add that this is really a tactical manoeuvre designed merely to capture belligerent voters for the PUP, from among the unionist grass-roots, in the forthcoming Assembly elections, while other thoughtful analysts offer a rather different view. They argue that mundane reasons can often provide better, or more apposite, illumination whilst traipsing through the darker depths of Northern Irish political behaviour and organisation. And that, perhaps, uncomplicated explanations may well be vindicated when all parties duly return to the pre-existing power-sharing programme.

Loyalists, it could be convincingly argued, have finally realised that the insidious republican modus operandi – which stresses collective leadership and policymaking from the top down – works wonders for morale and have therefore re-appropriated it for their own personal usage. In any event retreat over a decisive political issue, as all experienced practitioners know, can be both a dogged and promising manoeuvre in Northern Irish politics more so than just a cunning way to save face. This is especially important in a game of two halves where each segment is played out, interchangeably, in the debating chamber or negotiating table, and on the streets.

That Drowning Feeling

It is interesting to note that mainstream unionism – both pro and anti-Agreement camps – regard the recent UVF and RHC move as symptomatic of widespread unionist disillusionment with a ‘one-sided’ concession-baring process – although obviously for differing reasons. Meanwhile it is not clear what these loyalist organisations intend to do to ensure their representation is given the necessary audience at Downing Street or Leinster House. Actions in this respect may speak a thousand extra words to those in authority choosing to abide by the same dogmatic formula of concession and tenacity. Even though loyalist motivations are unclear their message, we are told, is a vivid and damming one. Put simply, the loyalist community has lost confidence in the Good Friday Agreement believing that their heavy subsidisation of it has brought them nothing in receipt.

There is a danger that during this clandestine morale-boosting exercise the preparedness for peace might well be overshadowed by a readiness for war – or, perhaps, something on a much smaller scale. One should remember that these are paramilitary organisations; therefore, “they collect weapons not stamps” and that their contribution to the political process must be treated with the utmost delicacy, and on the same par as that of republicans, if any progress is to be made towards the restoration of devolution. Bitter pills may well have to be swallowed by mainstream unionists, once again, if we are to see a return to local administration any time soon.

Voyeurism in the Depths Below

Such an argument of ‘inclusiveness’ in dialogue is enough to unsettle opinion among middle-of-the-road unionists and nationalists – or at the very least to give them minor indigestion. But unpleasant though it may be to advance electorally peripheral parties (or paramilitary groupings for that matter) a wager in this process one must not lose sight of the underlying dynamic in all of this – the need for meaningful peace and reconciliation. Sadly a repetitious chorus of democratic angst, from within mainstream unionism, has done absolutely nothing to cajole fellow citizens into active decommissioning. No, in this regard, the real business is left to the ‘spokesmen’ or ‘apologists’ – that is to say those who have invested credibility and confidence in their standing among their constituents – and it is to them, and their valuable maintenance work, that we must now look for the next move.

If one were to consider the constraints which PUP activists work within when consulting their grass-roots support-base colourful reasons can be unearthed which focus attention more on the pragmatism underpinning recent actions than on the pig-headedness often associated with loyalism. In this regard, the involvement of senior Provos and loyalist paramilitary commanders in an allegedly strategic, and well-orchestrated, campaign of violence at interface areas cannot be diagnosed as a spontaneous flare up of violence devoid of purpose. The threat of politically motivated violence is clearly the undercurrent which edifies the ideological exchange between republican and loyalist politicians when any quick-fix settlement is on the horizon. It is essentially the crutch against which competing mandates are propped. To completely remove this dependency would effectively eradicate support for peace itself within those marginalised communities for as long as ‘the other side’ continues to retain its war-making materials.

It should be borne in mind that democracy has been moulded into some odd shapes in Northern Ireland in order to provide a viable template for structural reconciliation. Physical force, distinguishable inside conventional modes of democracy elsewhere, has undergone a long incubation period in Irish politics and is not something easily removed from this historical context. Having been part of the problem it must logically be part of the solution.

Exploring the Wreckage

PUP leaders have explained the UVF-RHC move as a response to the suspected backdoor Anglo-Irish deal, thrashed out at No. 10, which is concerned solely with the need to reinstate a fledgling devolutionary project “at any price”. Certainly with the British Government preparing for a looming war in Iraq one should expect the Prime Minister to work within the now reliable methodology for jump-starting devolution. The successful neutralisation of the domestic Irish problem, for the time being, also ensures that two additional concerns are placated. Firstly, that valuable military resources are not tied up at home as they were back in 1991, and, secondly, that those who still subscribe to the dictum “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” are increasingly isolated from any potential support.

The coincidental effect that this blueprint may have for those political parties who withdraw from negotiations now at the behest of ground-level opinion might well be that they are left, in the long-term, without an appropriate forum to air ‘ordinary’ issues of social or economic significance. One outcome, which is discernible from the PUP walkout, is that they will get little succour from those regular guests at the negotiating table even more so with the possibility of Assembly elections in May.

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About aaronedwards2012

Historian, Writer, Academic. Views all my own.
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