A trip into the tortured Unionist mind

Unionists see politics as an activity beset by traps laid by people more cunning than them
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The Independent Culture
THE COMMUNAL Unionist decision-making process, when really big questions are posed to that community, is truly amazing. It is at work at this moment, as it wonders what to do about Tony Blair's de-commissioning deal.

Making up the Unionist mind is not a smooth or systematic affair: rather, it is jerky and volatile, accompanied by violent mood swings and a great deal of anguish. It is also highly unpredictable, which means the party's attitude to the latest deal cannot be forecast with complete confidence.

The untidiness of the process gives rise to the irony that a community which prides itself on its Britishness can look uncannily like a 19th century Punch caricature of how an Irish party functions. Voices are raised; metaphorical shillelaghs are brandished; emotions run high.

The basic Unionist instinct is to spurn big new ideas, for the underlying frame of mind is that nearly all major political initiatives are moves, which one way or another, lead inevitably to another diminution of Protestant power.

The half-century of Stormont one-party rule that ended in 1972 left many scars on the Catholic population, but it also warped the political outlook of Unionism. Protestants may have been in power but it was a nervous kind of rule, leaving them forever looking over their shoulders.

The journey from there to here has seen many traumas, partly because of republican violence but even more because of the various Westminster initiatives aimed at cross-community government.

The Stormont parliament went in the early 1970s, and, although the militant workers' strike which brought down the power-sharing executive in 1974 showed Protestant muscle, the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement served notice that even as strong a Tory as Margaret Thatcher was never going to give Unionists what they wanted.

A large part of the problem was that Unionists could never formulate a policy which stood any real chance of acceptance by either a British government, or by northern nationalists, or by Dublin.

Some Unionists flirted with independence; some pursued the chimera of fully integrating Northern Ireland with Britain; a few continued to hanker after the good old days of majority rule. None of these ever looked viable, so the policy vacuum was filled from elsewhere. This resulted first in the Anglo-Irishry which led to the 1985 accord; then this was overtaken, or perhaps evolved into, the Hume-Adams initiative which gave birth to the present peace process.

Unionism was first affronted by the Anglo-Irishry and then even more affronted by the peace process itself. Its political leaders regarded the first as giving Dublin a foothold in Northern Ireland, and the second as allowing republicans to pollute politics.

If Unionist politicians had prevailed in the years since the early 1990s the peace process would have been crushed. Jim Molyneaux, said of the 1994 IRA ceasefire: "It started de-stabilising the whole population in Northern Ireland. It was not an occasion for celebration, quite the opposite." Since then his party has dug itself into the decommissioning trench, demanding republican disarmament. Pre-Trimble Unionism was in the business of simply saying no. But David Trimble became engaged in the peace process, or perhaps enmeshed would be a better word.

Faced with new Labour, a republican movement equipped with a whole new approach, and an apparently unstoppable peace process, Trimble knew he had to engage in some way. He duly did, though most of his tactics seemed to come down to slowing the process down to a crawl.

That worked for a while, but now the world is once again impatient. Tony Blair and just about everyone else outside Unionism has become fired up with the idea that complete IRA arms decommissioning is a real possibility.

The word "peace" generated a huge amount of hope which, in turn, generated momentum. Now the idea that taking the gun out of Irish politics may be becoming a reality, has once again set minds alight.

And again Unionists have been left lagging behind. At times like these their mindset is filled not with imagination but fear: for them politics is an activity beset by traps and snares laid by people more cunning and more devious than themselves.

Hence the demands for more reassurances and fail-safe mechanisms; hence the tendency to regard this moment not as an opportunity but a danger. This is the eternal Unionist pursuit of a certainty which is simply not on offer today.

A refusal to go along with Tony Blair's proposition would bring a ton of blame crashing down on the Unionist neck. The peace process would go on and Unionists would be obliged to continue to engage with it; although unionism, having forfeited the moral high ground, would be weakened. But if the Unionists do hold their noses and go for it, a party split is a possibility.

Unionism's lack of clear objectives means that it finds itself reacting to the moves of its opponents rather than seizing the initiative. The debate about which way to go is being conducted not through calm analysis and thoughtful exchanges but with anguish and soul-searching and waves of emotion.

At the moment a majority of unionist politicians appears to be against the deal on offer, but past experience has shown that when the moment of truth arrives there is often a late swing in favour of agreement. The success of the present venture depends on that mechanism working once again, and on Unionists overcoming their ancient fears.