Why Unionists pose no threat

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I do not believe the Ulster Unionist Party is about to bring down John Major's government. Yet that is what it has threatened to do if Mr Major agrees to introduce ``cross-border institutions with executive powers'', as demanded by the Dublin gove rnmentand as - almost certainly - included in the present draft of the Framework for Peace agreement expected to be unveiled shortly.

The Unionists are not bluffing - but they could not bring the Government down on that issue alone. Any attempt by London to introduce "cross-border institutions with executive powers" (CROBIEP) into Northern Ireland would lead to the Unionists giving their unsolicited support to Labour, on some apparently unconnected proposition, and so precipitate a general election.

CROBIEP may sound harmless enough to many in Britain. But to everyone in Ireland, nationalists and Unionists alike, and on both sides of the border, it represents movement in the direction of joint authority by Dublin and London over Northern Ireland. And joint authority is seen as the penultimate step on the road to a united Ireland.

That is why Dublin, having failed to get Mr Major to agree to ``joint authority'', insists on the inclusion of CROBIEP in the coming Framework for Peace document. It is also why Unionists insist that CROBIEP must not happen.

Mr Major is at present signifying assent to both positions. CROBIEP will probably be included in the Framework for Peace - that much was probably agreed with the government of Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring - and the present government would try to holdMr Major to that agreement, if only for fear of being seen as significantly less nationalist than its predecessor. But the Prime Minister signalled clearly to the Unionists this week that, though it may appear in the Framework for Peace document, it will not actually happen, on the ground, in Northern Ireland.

According to one newspaper report, Mr Major suggested that the framework document, said by Dublin and London to be 95 per cent complete, had gone out for informal consultation - meaning, with the Unionists - before formal publication. After that it wouldbe put on the table for discussion by the constitutional parties - including the Unionists - before being put to a referendum.

The business end of that statement is of course the referendum for Northern Ireland. Unionists are a large majority of the Northern Irish electorate and no proposition against which both Unionist parties campaign strongly - as constituting a threat to the Union itself - has any chance of carrying in a referendum.

In this instance, therefore, the Unionists will have the substance, the nationalists the shadow. Shadows, however, are important in Irish politics. Dublin will want CROBIEP to be in the Framework, even if they know it will subsequently be nullified by the Northern referendum. Since Dublin wants CROBIEP in the Framework, the Unionists will want it out, even if they know they are really safe behind the referendum.

It is true that the idea of a Labour government is no longer as threatening to the Unionists as it used to be. Tony Blair's move, in dropping Labour's (conditional) commitment to the unity of Ireland, was astute in parliamentary terms. It made it easier for the Unionists to desert Mr Major should he offend them.

But it is still not in the interests of the Unionists to precipitate a general election that would result in a Labour government. Such a government would probably have a large parliamentary majority, so the Unionists would no longer enjoy their present leverage. The Unionists would risk even that if the alternative were the acceptance of CROBIEP, in substance. But with the referendum in reserve, the Unionists would be foolish to relinquish their present parliamentary advantage. So I think there is no real threat to Mr Major's government, from that particular quarter.

The promise to submit the Framework for Peace to a referendum in Northern Ireland has far-reaching implications for ``the peace process''. The ``referendum'' policy, if consistently adhered to, completely demolishes what Irish nationalists and their American supporters think of as ``the peace process''.

When Irish nationalists talk of ``moving the peace process forward'' what they mean is movement in the direction of a united Ireland, the objective equated with peace.

This is true of all Irish nationalists. Constitutional nationalists wrap it up in ambiguity, around John Hume's brilliantly sedative formula, ``an agreed Ireland''. The peace process, for constitutional nationalists, means step-by-step progress towards an agreed Ireland, which will be found, at the end of the day, to be identical with a united Ireland. In order to achieve progress in the desired direction, by agreement with London, the constitutional nationalists have found it expedient - in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985, and in the Downing Street Declaration - to agree formally to the principle that there can be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the agreement of a majority of its citizens.

That may sound definitive, but it isn't. The constitutional nationalist idea is that much progress towards ``an agreed Ireland'' can be made between London and Dublin without the agreement of a majority in Northern Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 was a model of that kind. The Downing Street Declaration was welcomed as a move in the same direction; by approving Irish ``self-determination'' CROBIEP was to be the next big move. The idea is that the Unionists would get so caught up in creeping ``United Ireland'' institutions that the final stage - explicit constitutional change - would be one to which the Unionists would have become resigned. But the referendum idea, once accepted, would bring this nationalist version of the peace process to a dead stop.

Last autumn Mr Major told the Unionists that the majority in Northern Ireland would have to be consulted about any changes affecting them; not just their ``constitutional position''. It was the acceptance of this assurance by the loyalist paramilitaries that brought about their ceasefire in mid-October under the slogan ``the Union is safe''. If that undertaking were broken - by trying to implement CROBIEP without a referendum - the loyalist ceasefire would be in serious danger.

But if the referendum is held - entrenching what Sinn Fein-IRA calls ``the Unionist veto'' - then the IRA ceasefire will be in serious danger.

One of many illusions surrounding ``the peace process'' is that peace can somehow be built on the foundation of ``the double ceasefire''. Yet the two ceasefires are not merely separate and distinct: they are based on mutually conflicting assumptions. Theloyalists assume ``the Union is safe''. The IRA assume substantial progress will be made, during the ceasefire, towards a united Ireland. These assumptions are incompatible.

This week Mr Major's government tried to balance concessions to Unionists with concessions to nationalists. But the concessions were not commensurate.

Some in Northern Ireland believe the two private armies are genuinely war-weary and will not resume the fight, whatever happens on the political front. We must all hope that that is so, but it would be imprudent for the Government to rest its security policies on any such assumption. There is stormy weather ahead, on the nationalist front especially, and the storm may break over the referendum in Northern Ireland.