John Hume's lonely but courageous attempts to convert Sinn Fein to peaceful methods provides an example. As in Mr Hume's case, tackling the paramilitaries would be politically risky. Northern Ireland's history is littered with Unionist leaders whose careers were destroyed after they identified themselves with moderation: Terence O'Neill, Brian Faulkner and Bill Craig spring to mind. Dr Paisley's success shows that extremism is rarely a vote-loser.
Unionism, like nationalism, has long flirted with violence. Sir Edward Carson used the threat of rebellion by the 'Ulster Volunteers' to stall the introduction of Irish Home Rule in 1914. Loyalist paramilitaries helped to organise the strike that destroyed power-sharing in Northern Ireland in 1974.
But now the politics of Northern Ireland are in flux. Unionist politicians must be prepared to lead their people into new ways of approaching old problems. This means not only isolating violent loyalists but pressing the Protestant community to rethink its place in Ireland. Slogans such as 'No surrender' cease to be credible when others show signs of compromise. Sinn Fein may be bluffing about making compromises but the Republic's government has moved considerably to acknowledge that the Unionists have a veto on fundamental change.
So far Unionists have not moved; they have tried only to frustrate initiatives. They know that John Major's government is beholden to them for parliamentary support and cannot force a settlement. But at some stage there will be a stronger Westminster government. If the IRA disavowed violence the British public would quickly tire of Unionist inertia, not to mention loyalist violence. Demographic trends, reducing the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, suggest that time is running out for intransigence.
Unionist leaders are, in their short-termism, missing an historic opportunity to protect the interests of their people. Like nationalists, they must tackle the paramilitaries and offer realistic alternatives to the killing.Reuse content