Unionism's misfortune is that no one in its ranks knows what it should be either. Within months, politicians are expected to enter the most far-reaching negotiations in Northern Ireland's history, and all the signs are that Unionism will be found lacking, both in terms of its personnel and the lack of that Big Idea. Its traditional insistence that Northern Ireland is British and nothing else has been left behind by events. With the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 Britain redefined the problem, to the dismay of Unionists, in an Anglo-Irish context.
London has held to that view ever since, right through the special relationship that the Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux is said to have developed with John Major. On one hand the Prime Minister has made some encouraging noises about the Union, but on the other he has maintained his close relationship with Dublin; he sanctioned two years of secret talks with the IRA; and he persevered with the idea of offering Sinn Fein entry into politics. Mr Molyneaux favoured none of these approaches. The Prime Minister was aware of this, and acutely aware too of the nine potentially useful Commons votes Mr Molyneux commands; yet those policies were maintained.
Mr Molyneaux quietly pursued his own esoteric agenda, based on his incomprehensible belief that altering obscure parliamentary procedures will strengthen the Union. While the Ulster Unionist leader concentrated on such minutiae as whether legislation should be by Bill or Order in Council, such momentous events as the Downing Street declaration and the IRA cessation have been changing the course of Irish politics.
This could be a metaphor for the state of Unionism itself, which is in danger of being left behind by the tide of history. With Sinn Fein, John Hume's SDLP, the Irish government and Irish-America all involved in the coming negotiations, they will clearly go to the fundamentals of the Irish Question; and all four of those elements will be represented by formidable negotiators.
Mr Molyneaux has little taste for negotiation or innovation, which is hardly surprising in a man who last week celebrated his 74th birthday. Other senior figures in his party, such as his possible successors John Taylor, David Trimble and William Ross, have little experience in negotiating and show no sign of having a Big Idea. Unionism, in fact, is deeply split. For almost a decade, Mr Molyneaux maintained a close relationship with the Rev Ian Paisley, but this broke up amid considerable bitterness earlier this year. Mr Paisley, who once admired Mr Molyneaux, has since compared him to Neville Chamberlain and even Judas Iscariot.
Mr Paisley himself, at 68, shows no signs of shedding the negative approach of a lifetime. Behind him stand the Rev William McCrea, who is if anything even more in the 'not an inch' mould than his leader, and Peter Robinson, who has occasionally gone through moderate phases but is now judged to have shot his bolt.
The balance of forces on the nationalist side is intriguing. Mr Adams has, in a dramatic gamble, brought about an IRA cessation of violence without achieving his movement's historic aims. It remains to be seen whether Sinn Fein's traditional voters stay with the party in its new pacific role or drift away. The probability is that Mr Adams's exceptionally high standing within the republican community will hold it together.
The standing of John Hume among constitutional nationalists is even higher. In the European elections in the spring he recorded his biggest-ever vote, almost surpassing that of Mr Paisley. That was when he was trying to bring about an IRA cessation; now that it has happened he has assumed a place in the nationalist pantheon comparable to that of O'Connell and Parnell at their zenith.
All of this means that nationalists will go into negotiations with high hopes and high expectations, while Unionists will be nervous and fearful. Unionism has failed to get the genie back into the bottle and have the issue treated as an internal UK one. Nationalists have succeeded in establishing both Anglo-Irish and American dimensions. The absence of a Unionist Big Idea will now be painfully obvious, and could cost that community dear.
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