Unionist MPs once again out in the cold

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The Independent Online
The isolation experienced by Ulster Unionist MPs in the Commons yesterday was a telling judgement on the political skills and perceptions of those who represent the majority of Northern Ireland's million Protestants.

Sent to Westminster to win friends and influence people, and armed with the knowledge that a weak prime minister was anxious to secure their votes, the Unionists sat through an occasion which demonstrated their limitations to the world.

Some of the Unionist MPs had until recently believed it would be different this time: that bridges had been built and relationships fostered, and sympathy won for their cause.

Until recently, party leader Jim Molyneaux had thought he and John Major had an understanding which would pay dividends for Unionism by strengthening the union. Yet the Framework Document, when it came, was welcomed even by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, leaving the Unionists once again out in the cold.

This was the party which, as recently as last October, was purring with self-satisfaction about Mr Molyneaux's "special relationship" with the PM. Its annual conference had a palpable feel-good factor, with much praise and genuine affection for Mr Molyneaux, who was seen as a low-key but highly effective leader.

A senior party member said privately then: "Generally, they feel that Jim's doing a good job and that he has a very good relationship with John Major. They like the feeling of having influence at court."

The extent of that miscalculation was cruelly exposed yesterday, raising the question of how much longer the 74-year-old leader will remain at the head of the party. Throughout much of his quarter of a century in the Commons, he has depended on the tactic of striking up relationships with Tory prime ministers, first Mrs Thatcher and more lately Mr Major.

In 1985, Mrs Thatcher betrayed him, he would say, by signing the Anglo- Irish agreement with Dublin. Now Mr Major has gone even further down the same road by increasing still further Irish nationalist influence.

The fact that John Major and Margaret Thatcher both described themselves as Unionists has served only to throw further doubt on the Unionist leader's judgement. To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, to lose one prime minister could be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two smacks of carelessness.

The problem for Unionism is that neither Mr Molyneaux nor any of those in line to succeed him - nor indeed anyone in Unionism's limited intelligentsia - has come up with any more promising lines than that which has lead to these repeated disappointments and betrayals.

The most likely course for Unionism now is not to take to the streets, nor to transform itself into a movement prepared to consider a new deal with nationalism; rather, it is to become an even more defensive, largely passive, organism, determined simply to slow down the political pace as much as possible.

That would slow down the peace process but would not end it, and would amount to voluntarily opting for political isolation. If anyone in Unionism's ranks has a better and more promising idea, they have yet to voice it.

The government may hope that some of the present Unionist leadership can adapt to peace, though so far there is little evidence of old dogs learning new tricks. It is also hopeful, with rather more grounds for its optimism, that out there in the Protestant community a new mood, so appreciative of peace, will enable the type of concessions the grassroots previously refused to contemplate.

The upshot is that we may now see another familiar syndrome, in which Unionist reactions emerge slowly, after days or even weeks of confusion, from communal discussions rather than from the top.