In his first post for Open Unionism, Turgon considers that Unionism now has the confidence to seek to move in a new direction, and suggests that the time is right for the DUP, UUP and TUV to consider how to modify, if not completely transform, the present political architecture…
Confidence like momentum is vital in politics. Both of them are difficult to describe but very real. To varying extents since the fall of Stormont in 1972 unionism has suffered from a lack of confidence, only worsened by events such as the Anglo Irish Agreement and by the events surrounding the IRA ceasefire; an event which could have been seen as a unionist victory but instead was seen as indicative of an agreement between the British government and nationalism to eventually end the union. The UUP reacted to this by electing a new leader in Trimble in part to regain confidence. This, however, quickly compounded the situation and a withering series of concessions proceeded gracelessly yet with tedious regularity. Although lauded by many in the international community for his “flexibility” and that despite his rather prickly personality; no one interested in unionist politics can forget “No guns no government” and then “We’ve jumped – you follow.” Trimble may, as some UUP revisionists would now claim, have been drawing republicans steadily into a net, and trapping them within the confines of a partitionist settlement. However, he may also have been a hapless negotiator, weakened by dissent in his own party which heightened as he gradually Lundified himself.
Either way the net result was that unionism became progressively disenchanted with the agreement and also felt increasingly weakened. The direction of travel seemed all one way, with the logical end result in a united Ireland. As unionist confidence ebbed that of republicans soared, little wonder Adams boasted about a united Ireland by 2016; it did not seem a completely unreasonable concept.
Of course then came the 2005 general election which ushered out the era of Trimble and in the DUP. The DUP of course gave back unionism its confidence: no longer the litany of concessions; instead it was Sinn Fein forced into retreat and compromise, accepting decommissioning and acknowledging the police, then being out manoeuvred to an extent regarding academic selection and for the time being at least not achieving policing and justice devolution.
However, the DUP have had to make concessions. They have gone into government with the political representatives of those (at times with the very people) who committed the bombings and murders. They have accepted mandatory coalition (at least for the mean time); they have had to witness the chaos which Ruane has made of the education system; they have been unable to change some of Conor Murphy’s directives. At times the DUP have suggested that the St Andrew’s Agreement was a huge success, at others that it was the best compromise that they could have got and that although they were not delighted by it the alternative would have been much worse.
Despite this somewhat Janus headed approach the unionist community has gained a great deal of self confidence since the DUP took over as the lead unionist party. Although the DUP cannot really claim all credit for this, even the most hardened UUP supporter would find it difficult to deny that the DUP have had some involvement in this turn around. Such a UUP supporter might argue that the UUP created the architecture which trapped Sinn Fein within the process but they would find it difficult to argue that the DUP had not improved that architecture and had more effectively stymied SF within the executive (albeit at the price of future problems such as a highly possible Sinn Fein first minister).
The problem now for the DUP is that the unionist community have possibly gained more confidence (in large part thanks to them) than the DUP expected. Now the unionist community, far from en masse thanking the DUP and rewarding them with complete electoral dominance, seem to feel that the DUP have not achieved enough and indeed have conceded too much. Both the TUV and UUP are trying from somewhat different angles to extensively modify the agreement. Clearly the DUP are now also talking in the same terms and to be fair they always wanted to modify the agreement in a relatively similar fashion to the suggestions of the other parties (centrally an end to mandatory coalition). The problem for the DUP, however, is that being the party in government they seem to be in danger of being regarded as supporting the current situation whereas the TUV have never supported it and the UUP with the Conservatives seem to be successfully portraying themselves as moving on beyond it (conveniently forgetting that they created much of the mess which the DUP to an extent got the unionist community out of).
Clearly it would be too much to expect the three parties to cooperate greatly in the coming months with an election in the offing. However, all three parties now seem to feel that whatever the merits of the current agreement it is time to move forwards to modify (or completely reshape) the current situation. The challenges are extremely complex: They are to gain broad acceptance within unionism for a suggested way forwards, persuade the British (and Irish) governments of the merits of such change and (possibly most challenging) have “massive outreach” to nationalists to persuade them of the need for and merit of such changes. These aims may be impossible but at least unionism now has the confidence to seek to move in new directions. Whom to thank for this confidence and which unionists may lose in such changes are less important questions than the fact that this confidence exists.