By Jack Holland
Consider this: The Ulster Unionist Party, the party that has been for years the proponent of devolved government in Northern Ireland, refuses to recognize Stormont. This is in effect what happened on Thursday, July 15. The Unionist Party became an abstentionist party.
Even stranger. At the very moment when David Trimble, the UUP leader, is refusing to go to Stormont, a Sinn Fein president — none other than Gerry Adams — is standing in that august institution berating the Unionists for not showing up.
I will say that again, just in case you did not believe me: A Sinn Fein president spoke at Stormont while Unionists enforced a boycott.
Republicans are now writing irate editorials in Sinn Fein newspapers attacking the Unionists for showing contempt for devolved government in Northern Ireland. This is not a parallel universe. It is simply politics.
I am reminded of the story that George Orwell told about the British Communist Party. Before August 1939, British Communists spent most of their time attacking Hitler as a threat to the working class. Then, in August that year, Stalin — the great hero of the working class — signed a treaty with Hitler, the great enemy of the working class. The CP attacks stopped.
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The war started. British Communists — being well-programmed — began attacking Britain’s involvement in the war. Now it was the war, not Hitler, that was anti-working class.
Dutifully, the British Communists churned out their anti-war propaganda. On June 22, 1941, a group of Communists were meeting in a London pub to prepare their latest blast at Britain’s war effort. The party chairman, Palm Dutte, got up to go to the toilet. While he was away, the radio news came on announcing that Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union. Stalin had declared that it was time for all good Communists to rally around and commit themselves without reservation to the war which was now being described as a battle to defend the working class. Dutte returned to his comrades to find that the party line had been reversed. In the time it took him to take a leak, CP politics was turned inside out.
This is the sense that one gets now reading the outpourings of Sinn Fein aparatchiks, attacking Trimble for not turning up at Stormont — a body which the party boycotted for almost its entire history. IRA volunteers died in the struggle to get rid of the old Stormont and were then instrumental in the effort to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 — though in this, it is true, they played second fiddle to the Ulster Defense Association.
However, many a good Communist went to his grave at the hands of the Nazis, but this did not stop Stalin from doing what he thought was in the best interests of the Soviet Union — which was to reach a deal with Hitler. Gerry Adams, and the Sinn Fein leadership no doubt believe that it was in the best interests of their movement to reverse their traditional policy in relation to Stormont. They are probably correct. The trouble is, of course, aparatchiks by their very nature never admit that the line has been changed, much less reversed. They usually pretend that nothing has changed and they have been all along following a consistent policy. So British Communists would maintain, in spite of the evidence, that Stalin was always opposed to Hitler, the war was always about smashing fascism, etc.
To take part in this kind of propaganda one has to do violence to the truth.
It is usually the case with parties like the Communists and Sinn Fein (I refer to parties that base their politics on a few ideological absolutes) that it is their own former propaganda that becomes their greatest enemy. It has a tendency to haunt them.
If Sinn Fein has now reversed itself, what can be said about the flip-flops performed by Trimble? How did a party which has for so long been as strongly identified with Stormont as Sinn Fein has been with opposition to it end up in the abstentionist camp, albeit briefly? Actually, the problem with Unionism is that it does not have an ideology as such. Though it tends to be more right wing than left, and traditionally has been identified with the Conservative Party, there is nothing inherently improbable about being a left wing Unionist. Indeed, for years the Northern Ireland Labor Party was both socialist and Unionist, deriving its support mostly from Protestant trade unionists.
As well, Unionism has not always been in favor of devolved government. Indeed, Edward Carson, now so closely identified with the creation of Northern Ireland, was violently opposed to the setting up of a separate Northern state. Unionism did not campaign for partition, and was only somewhat reluctantly persuaded to accept it by the British government. A devolved government in Belfast was viewed as a second-best option. But once the new regime was up and running, the political benefits for Unionists quickly became obvious. It soon became an article of faith with them that their survival and prosperity depended on keeping a strong Stormont. There was little or no sentiment for any other political or constitutional option.
It was only later, after the imposition of direct rule in March 1972, that some Unionists began talking about notions such as independence for Northern Ireland. Among them, briefly, was David Trimble, when he was a member of Bill Craig’s Vanguard movement in the early 1970s. He became deputy leader of the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party. But the flirtation with Ulster independence did not last long, and never became a serious part of mainstream Unionism. Ulster independence is still espoused by a few, but for the most part it is magnet for cranks and misfits. David Trimble is not one of them. That is why he will be going back to Stormont one of these days.
It is true that some Unionists would actually prefer direct rule to continue — James Molyneaux, Trimble’s predecessor as UUP leader, was happier with that arrangement and viewed devolved government suspiciously. But the problem they face is that the British government has no desire to maintain direct rule. It never had — at least not in the last 70 years. It wants the Irish, republican and Unionist, to rule themselves, ensconced in Stormont. That is the simple truth that all sides will have to deal with. It is just one of those little ironies that it is now the republicans, not the Unionists, who seem to be coping with it more successfully.