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Fantasy politics? restructuring unionism after the good Friday agreement.

The current arrangements are not a settlement, but a process of concessions--concessions that have turned conventional wisdom on its head. Government policy has been to reward those who do wrong whilst punishing those who want to be democratic. What kind of peace process is that? Democracy must not be held to ransom by gunmen. (1)

Peter Robinson, Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

While most Protestants welcomed the improved atmosphere arising from the peace process and the cease-fires, they remained suspicious of the motives of those involved, including the Labour government, Dublin, the SDLP and, particularly, Sinn Fein. Although they stood to gain from the restoration of devolved government and nationalist endorsement of the principle of consent, they had lost, at least psychologically, by having to include Sinn Fein in the new administration. They were fearful for the long-term future of the British link, with devolved structures evolving in Scotland and Wales and with nationalists given equal representation with unionists in the 10-member executive. (2)

Barry White, Belfast Telegraph


Politics in Northern Ireland is again in no small state of upheaval and confusion. The strength of political division was reflected directly in the November 2003 Assembly election, when the Democratic Unionist Party (hereafter DUP) and Sinn Fein emerged as the two largest political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. (3) Not surprisingly, the election accelerated the erosion of the already tenuous center ground, with the Women's Coalition losing both of its representatives and the Alliance Party reduced to six seats. Among nationalist parties, Sinn Fein's 23.5 percent of the vote far outpaced the Social Democratic and Labour Party (hereafter SDLP), which received only 17 percent of the poll.

The changes in the electoral map were even more dramatic within unionist politics, where the DUP claimed victory over the Ulster Unionist Party (hereafter UUP), a result that certainly reinforced its claim to be the true voice of Ulster unionism. As the strongest opponents of any political settlement, the DUP demonstrated the ability to mobilize large sections of the unionist community behind its position. (4) Overall, the election results again highlighted increasing levels of unionist disillusionment with the arrangements outlined in what is known as the Belfast Agreement, or more commonly, the Good Friday Agreement, (5) and the workings of the Northern Ireland Assembly. (6)

The prelude to the election demonstrated the fragility of the political accord. The British government suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly in October 2002. Direct rule from Westminster was again imposed, widely perceived as the only short-term solution to increasingly tense political discord in Northern Ireland. This, the fourth suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland since February 2000, occurred after it became clear that the working relationships upon which the power-sharing government rested could no longer be sustained. (7)

Political tensions predictably centered on unionist opposition to Sinn Fein's participation in government. Much of this was triggered by a series of controversies involving Sinn Fein that included the arrest of three IRA members in Colombia accused of training FARC rebels, (8) and a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) raid on Sinn Fein's Stormont offices on suspicions that an IRA "spy ring" was operating within the Assembly. The two DUP Assembly ministers, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, reacted by resigning from their posts, refusing to share power with Sinn Fein. Moreover, the Assembly's First Minister, David Trimble, threatened to withdraw UUP ministers if Sinn Fein were not immediately excluded.

While Sinn Fein members angrily denounced the foray as a politically motivated stunt, many unionists emphasized republicans' seeming refusal to fulfill the terms of the agreement, particularly the section that stated that objectives should be pursued solely by peaceful, democratic means. This controversy had an immediate and negative impact on political behavior, as there had been some evidence that suggested the beginnings of the development of reasonable working relationships across republican and loyalist parties in the Assembly. (9) Political reaction to the controversies surrounding the allegations against Sinn Fein stopped this process short and made the continuance of the Assembly untenable.

Of course, these controversies had an even wider impact, disrupting the intricate choreography involving the British and Irish governments, Sinn Fein, and the UUP. (10) The latest of these "set pieces" involved further IRA weapons decommissioning. The intricacy of this process can be seen by looking closely at the events of 21 October 2003. The day began with Tony Blair announcing new elections to the Assembly. Blair's announcement was followed by keynote speeches by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and General John de Chastelain, the head of the decommissioning body, both hinting that things were moving forward. Any hopes that real progress would be made were soon dashed, however, when it became clear that the statements had failed to convince the UUP leadership that republicans had moved significantly on the arms issue. David Trimble then announced that he was putting "the deal on hold," citing the lack of transparency around the acts of decommissioning and the failure of the republican movement to hold to the agreements it had made. Looking on from the sidelines, the DUP claimed vindication for its position of no public contact with Sinn Fein. As one commentator put it, "the day which was supposed to herald a breakthrough ... instead ended in a messy breakdown." (11)

Such episodes reflect the enigmatic ways that unionists have reacted to recent political events in Northern Ireland. In broad terms this essay will critically analyze unionist and loyalist responses to the contemporary peace process. Fundamental to this is an understanding of the ways that unionists have sought to interpret contemporary events and to assert their sense of social identity and history in the peace process. Moreover, it is clear that this response has involved an attempt to restructure unionist politics in the post-Good Friday Agreement era. This realignment has largely taken place around the counter-hegemonic politics of the past, presently best represented by the DUP. Throughout this article I will therefore endeavor to outline the range of understandings and values that unionists use to weave their worldviews and construct their interpretations of day-to-day events. These beliefs include notions about the nature of political and social life, the role of the state, and the central values of the political system in Northern Ireland.


The foundations of the formal peace process in Northern Ireland rest in a round of 1992 talks that involved the British and Irish governments and the main Northern Irish political parties. This paved the way for public declarations made by both governments promising to be magnanimous in the event of a cease-fire. The leading paramilitary organizations did indeed call cease-fires in 1994 (initially by the IRA and slightly later by loyalist paramilitaries). Underpinning all of this was widespread support by critical players in the international community, most notably the Clinton administration in the United States. (12) Subsequent events have been traced in great detail elsewhere. (13) Briefly, the process precipitated an inclusive agreement in February 1995, which contained a series of initiatives designed to refashion the triangular relationship between London, Dublin, and Belfast and British proposals for the creation of new devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

Following protracted political negotiations lasting some twenty-two months, the process produced a multiparty peace agreement in April 1998. The Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement granted legislative and executive powers to Northern Ireland in more than ten areas of government. The arrangements were overwhelmingly approved by referendum in both the Republic and Northern Ireland on 22 May 1998. Subsequent elections were called to choose the I08 members of the new Northern Ireland Assembly. Most importantly, the agreement was seen as the mechanism to begin to mollify the ethnically constructed political blocs of Protestant loyalism/unionism and Irish nationalism/republicanism. Since then, however, these political formations have, if anything, been reinforced, a trend highlighted by the 2003 Assembly election results. Indeed, all of the political parties have spent a great deal of effort convincing intra-bloc groupings that they can best secure the deal for unionism over nationalism or vice versa.

Consequently, the Northern Ireland peace process has been characterized by a whole series of crises, with both the elected Assembly and the wider peace process repeatedly teetering on the verge of outright collapse. Much of this is tied to the very nature of the peace process, which at its heart has always been based on a series of interlocking political ambiguities. On the one hand, Irish republicans believe they have a position in the power-sharing executive and in the Assembly as a matter of right, exercising representative political power based on the mandate of those who voted for Sinn Fein. On the other hand, many unionists believe republicans are only in the position they are because they promised to make a transition from a past in which political violence was central to the movement, toward a future in which they would use only constitutional and democratic means to obtain their objectives. For many unionists the slowness of paramilitary decommissioning thus represents a core failure of the agreement.

According to this view, post-Good Friday Agreement politics can be characterized as a "one-way street" of concessions to republicans, a notion that reinforces the idea that the peace process is failing. As Jeffrey Donaldson has written, "There are times when I hesitate to use the words 'peace process,' because I am not convinced that the end of the process will be peace. There are times when I think the word 'appeasement' is more apt." (14) In short, like Donaldson, many unionists feel that the contemporary phase of the peace process has weakened rather than safeguarded the union. (15)


Over the past five years unionists have articulated a wide variety of political responses to the Good Friday Agreement. (16) The current skepticism was not the immediate response of the majority of unionists. Rather, the initial mood in both nationalist and unionist communities was one of euphoria, many expressing feelings that Northern Ireland had emerged out of the darkness to welcome a new period of peace and prosperity. This confidence is reflected in the following assessment of the unionist position, made by David Trimble in 1998:
   The people of Northern Ireland are not fools. They can see that we
   have achieved all that we wanted in the constitutional arena. They
   will not listen to those voices who cry out "treachery" and accuse
   us of selling the Union ...

   What mattered most to the UUP negotiators above all else, was that
   the Talks process be used as a vehicle to strengthen the Union
   between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For the first time since
   1972, the people of Northern Ireland are to have the democratic
   deficit removed. For the first time in 26 years it will be for the
   people of Ulster to determine their future. No longer will we be at
   the whim of Secretaries of State who neither care nor understand our
   Province. ...

   We have sought and secured a permanent settlement not a temporary
   transitional arrangement. More that that we have copper-fastened
   partition. The Union is secure. (17)

In the ebullient atmosphere following the referendum result, however, the fact that a significant minority of Northern Ireland Protestants had voted against the agreement passed almost without comment. Despite the fact that the new arrangements replaced the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, so much despised by unionists, there was still strong opposition to the accord from key sections of unionism.

Initially, the "anti-agreement" camp, particularly the faction led by Ian Paisley and the DUP, was politically marginalized and portrayed in the media as a group that merely represented the politics of the past. Three years later, this position had changed dramatically. By this point unionist voices of opposition to the agreement had grown louder. (18)

The growth and extent of unionist disillusionment was seen in the results of the June 200I elections. Both the Westminster and local council results revealed increased support for unionist politicians against the new political arrangements. This was most obvious in the general election, where the pro-agreement UUP lost four of its ten seats, and the anti-agreement DUP gained three seats. (19) Of course, opposition to the accord haltered Various expressions of unionist discontent, many of which were tied to deeper and more long-term processes.

The direction of political events in Northern Ireland has produced increasing dissatisfaction from within core sections of unionism. Unionists have suggested that it was a "pan-nationalist front" that was providing the real momentum behind the "peace process." Moreover, the British government was seen as willing to "sell out" to this nationalist and republican agenda. There was a prevailing suspicion that the "real" process was founded on a surreptitious "deal" involving the British and Irish governments and the republican movement. One leading scholar of contemporary unionism has suggested that in broad terms many unionists now feel that they are giving everything and get ting nothing in return. (20) At the very least this contemporary phase of the peace process has presented direct challenges to core concepts of unionist culture and identity. Moreover, the DUP's success reflects a broad belief that the very existence of Northern Ireland and its union with Britain may be in question.

In short, recent political developments can be fully understood only in the context of an increasing sense of trepidation among growing sections of the unionist communities of Northern Ireland. The contours of these sentiments are outlined below. This has been manifested most overtly in political divisions between those unionists who support and those who oppose the agreement. Such divisions are, however, reflections of much longer-standing ideological and social divisions within unionism.


Not all unionists directly opposed the agreement. Indeed, one of the most important developments in contemporary politics in Northern Ireland has been the emergence of new unionist political groupings that have openly challenged many of its established values and structures. Loyalist paramilitaries have provided much of the core direction of this attempted political realignment. Two loyalist parties have emerged in recent years: the Progressive Unionist Party (hereafter PUP), linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (hereafter UVF), and the Ulster Democratic Party (hereafter UDP), representing the Ulster Defence Association (hereafter UDA).

Both the UDP and the PUP took seats in the Forum following the elections of 1996. When the first elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly eventually took place, however, the UDP failed to have any representatives elected, whereas the PUP secured two seats. The UDP has since disbanded, fracturing over irreconcilable disagreements within the broader leadership of the UDA. (21)

The PUP, however, has continued to function and presents itself as a working-class, at times even socialist, alternative to the established unionist parties. The politicization of key sections of working-class loyalism has resulted in a degree of self-criticism and political reflection rarely seen in unionist politics. In the early stages of the peace process, the PUP facilitated the opening up of discussion and debate within many loyalist communities, particularly those traditionally excluded from the domain of politics. (22) Furthermore, the PUP has consistently argued that, unlike traditional unionists, its members are seeking to move away from "tribalism" and "sectarian politics" in order to redefine unionist politics. Importantly, the PUP was able to convince its immediate constituency of working-class Protestants that the peace process had secured the union for the foreseeable future and would bring widespread benefits to Northern Ireland. (23) The party's growth also sparked the partial renegotiation of the ideological boundaries within which many unionists sought to express their identity and frame an understanding of loyalism. (24)

Support for the PUP has, however, remained largely confined to identifiable working-class areas in Belfast and its immediate environs. Any hope that the party may have had for expanding its electorate floundered with the paramilitary feuds between the UDA and the UVF during the summer of 2000. Within wider unionism (and beyond) these events firmly repositioned the PUP within the confines of its paramilitary past.

Beyond this, the PUP has had difficulty in continuing to convince its core constituencies that the peace process has delivered any tangible benefits. Party members have found themselves defending an agreement that was not delivering anything to the working-class unionist areas where the PUP's electoral base rests. (25) By continuing to support the peace process, the PUP has appeared to be defending David Trimble and the UUP, particularly against the rising DUP challenge. This has not helped the party to gain votes in a unionist community increasingly disillusioned with the workings of the Good Friday Agreement.

The other major site of unionist political support for the agreement has of course been the UUP. In many ways, recent politics in Northern Ireland has been driven by the UUP's emphatic engagement with the peace process. This support, however, is not uncontested within the party. Considerable divisions remain within the UUP surrounding the party's continued support for the agreement. Such debates are likely to intensify following the November 2003 election. Not surprisingly, opponents have focused their attack on the UUP leadership's willingness to work with Sinn Fein and the republican movement.

Within the UUP those most strongly opposed to the party's pro-agreement stance have coalesced around Jeffrey Donaldson. Indeed, David Trimble has now survived at least eleven leadership challenges in his tussle with Donaldson and his supporters. Along with two other unionist MPs, Donaldson has refused to take the Unionist Party whip in the Westminster parliament.

Donaldson's criticism of the political direction taken by the UUP has consistently undermined David Trimble's position as party leader. More specifically, political differences within the UUP have resulted in a series of overt confrontations at meetings of the party's executive body, the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC). (26) In April 1998 some 72 percent of the UUC endorsed support for the Good Friday Agreement. Since then, the support base for the accord within the UUP has steadily diminished. On a range of important votes, including a decision to continue power-sharing with Sinn Fein before decommissioning and a leadership challenge by Martin Smyth, MP for South Belfast, Trimble's support within the UUC has fallen to from 53 to 58 percent.

At the core of Trimble's leadership has been the promotion of the agreement as a way of bringing unionism back to "the heart of government." (27) Underpinning this has been the argument that the UUP could secure devolution and bring about complete decommissioning and perhaps even the eventual disbanding of the IRA. Always hesitant to accept this view, Jeffrey Donaldson and his allies have become increasingly dismissive of Trimble's belief that the Good Friday Agreement brings benefits to unionists and secures the union. On 5 January 2004, this culminated in Donaldson's defection to the DUP (with two other newly elected UUP MLAs), a decision based on his belief that the DUP now comprised the true representatives of "mainstream unionism." (28)


Given the strength of this reassertion of traditional unionist values, there are important questions to be asked regarding the extent to which unionism has altered its form in the contemporary period. (29) At the core of unionist political realignments is the perception that neither the British government nor Sinn Fein is meeting the terms of the agreement. Overall, there is a broad crisis of identity within contemporary unionism underpinned by an overriding sense of insecurity created by the peace process, the changing nature of relationships with both the British and Irish governments, and the political outcomes of the agreement. In this crisis environment the politics and rhetoric of traditional unionism have re-emerged as the most potent force in unionist politics. Part of the response (and the politically successful one) has been a re-emphasis by the DUP of what are seen as the core values and politics of so called "traditional unionism."

Unionist Politics "On the Streets"

The day-to-day life experiences of many unionists shape the nature of their response to the agreement. At everyday community levels many

(1). Peter Robinson, "Why Unionists are Waking Up," Right Now! (March/April 2003), 8-9.

(2.) Barry White, "The Peace Process: A Question of Definition," in Dominic Murray, ed., Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland (University of Limerick: Centre for Peace and Development Studies, 2000).

(3.) Overall the DUP won thirty seats; the UUP twenty-seven; Sinn Fein twenty-four; the SDLP eighteen; and the Alliance Party six. The PUP and the UKUP each won one seat, and one Independent was elected, totalling 108 seats.

(4.) See "Ulster Turmoil as Paisley Roars Back," The Independent, 29 November 2003; "Hardline Victors Reject Accord: Power-Sharing Hopes Fade with Paisley's Success," The Guardian, 29 Nov. 2003.

(5.) Like much else in Northern Ireland, terminology can reflect the sectarian divide. Most unionists call it the Belfast Agreement, while most nationalists refer to it as the Good Friday Agreement. Here I use the latter term simply as the one in most common usage.

(6.) See Brendan O'Leary, "The Nature of the British-Irish Agreement," New Left Review 233 (1999), 66-96.

(7.) The Northern Ireland Assembly was first suspended by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from February to May 2000 due to a perceived lack of progress on arms decommissioning. It was then suspended twice for 24 hours in 2001 as a technical device to ensure the re-election of David Trimble as First Minister. Despite new elections in November 2003, direct rule remained in place at the time of this writing.

(8.) The group's name translates as the "Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia." See Sandra Jordan, Henry McDonald, and Ed Vulliamy, "Sinn Fein's big blunder," The Observer, 28 April 2002; "Possible IRA and FARC links undermine Sinn Fein," [downloaded 17 Aug. 2001].

(9.) The extent of cooperation between Sinn Fein and the PUP within the Assembly was recorded in James W. McAuley and Jon Tonge, "The Role of 'Extra-Constitutional' Parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly," Final Report to the ERSC, Award L327253058, 2001.

(10.) Paul Dixon, "The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Political Skills or Lying and Manipulation," paper presented at the 51st Political Studies Association Conference, Manchester, UK, 10-12 April 2001.

(11.) David McKittrick, "Peace Hopes are Shattered by One Downbeat Speech," The Independent, 22 Oct. 2003.

(12.) See, for example, Paul Arthur, Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland and the Northern Ireland Problem (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2000); Andrew J. Wilson, "The Billy Boys Meet Slick Willy: The Ulster Unionist Party and the American Dimension to the Northern Ireland Peace Process," Irish Studies in International Affairs II (2000), 121-36.

(13.) For useful reviews, see Thomas Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Troubles? (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 2000); Jeremy Smith, Making the Peace in Ireland (London: Longman, 2002); Joe Ruane and Jennifer Todd, eds., After the Good Friday Agreement (Dublin: University College, Dublin Press, 1999); Marianne Elliott, ed., The Long Road to Peace in Northern Ireland (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002).

(14.) Jeffrey Donaldson, The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Blurring the Lines Between Democracy and Terrorism (London: Friends of the Union, 2000).

(15.) See Norman Boyd, "Belfast Agreement's Collapse Inevitable," Northern Ireland Unionist Party Press Release (Belfast, II April 2003); Democratic Unionist Party, "Peter Robinson's Speech to United Unionist Rally," DUP Press Release (Belfast, 27 Oct. 1997); "The Real Drumcree Issue," DUP Press Release (Belfast, 1 July 1998); DUP, "The Tragedy of a False Peace," [downloaded 14 Jan. 1999]; Towards a New Agreement: A Critical Assessment of the Belfast Agreement Five Years

On (Belfast, 2003); Robert McCartney, Reflections on Liberty, Democracy and the Union (Dublin: Maunsel and Company, 2001); "Gerry Pandering?" Belfast Telegraph, 4 Oct. 2001; "The ghost train of progress hurtles down twin tracks that aren't there," News-Letter, 30 Nov. 2002.

(16.) For a broad range of views, see Ruane and Todd, After the Good Friday Agreement; Rick Wilford, ed., Aspects of the Belfast Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); John Coakley, ed., Changing Shades of Orange and Green: Redefining the Union and the Nation in Contemporary Ireland (Dublin: University College, Dublin Press, 2002).

(17.) David Trimble, "An Immediate Assessment: Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, 17 April 1998." Reproduced in To Raise up a New Northern Ireland: Articles and Speeches, 1998-2000 (Belfast: The Belfast Press, 2001).

(18.) For a useful outline of Protestant and unionist responses, see Murray, Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process.

(19.) The local council results mirrored the results of the general election. These trends have of course only accelerated since 2001. The 2003 election saw the DUP increase its share of the vote from 13.6 percent (1997) to 22.5 percent, while the UUP share of the vote declined from 32.7 percent to 26.8 percent.

(20.) Murray, 3-4.

(21.) See Irish News, 29 Nov. 2001.

(22.) See James W. McAuley, "(Re)constructing Ulster Loyalism: Political Responses to the Peace Process," Irish Journal of Sociology 6 (1996), 165-82; "Flying the One-Winged Bird: Ulster Unionism and the Peace Process," in P. Shirlow and M. McGovern, eds., Who are the People?: Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland (London: Pluto Press, 1997), 158-75; "The Ulster Loyalist Political Parties: Towards a New Respectability," Etudes Irlandaises 22:2 (1997), 117-32.

(23.) See Progressive Unionist Party, Manifesto for the Forum Election (Belfast, 1996); "Dealing with Reality" (Belfast, 1996); "PUP Election Material," [downloaded 21 Nov. 1998]; "The Hard Bitter Experience," [downloaded 14 Nov. 1999].

(24.) See Shankill Think Tank, A New Beginning (Newtownabbey: Island Publications, 1995); At the Crossroads? (Newtownabbey: Island Publications, 1998).

(25.) Peter Hadden, Northern Ireland." Towards Division not Peace (Belfast: Socialist Party, 2000).

(26.) Created in 1905, this is a formal grouping within the party that has sought to act as a key intermediary between the parliamentary group and the wider unionist electorate, local unionist associations, and the Loyal Orange Order.

(27.) Trimble, To Raise up a New Northern Ireland.

(28.) See "Donaldson announces DUP move," BBC News, [downloaded 5 Jan. 2004] and Angelique Chrisafis, "Paisley top dog at last as defectors shift the balance," The Guardian, 6 Jan. 2004.

(29.) For different perspectives on this, see Andrew Finlayson, "Loyalist Political Identity After the Peace," Capital and Class 69 (1999), 47-75; Johnston Price, "Political Change and the Protestant Working Class," Race and Class 31:1 (1995), 57-69; and James W. McAuley, "Mobilising Ulster Unionism: New Directions or Old?" Capital and Class 70 (2000), 37-64.
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Author:McAuley, James W.
Publication:Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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