By John Kelly
The sooner the unionists can join with the rest of the island the better. They claim that they are neat, clean, and honest. They reckon the rest of us who share this island are little more than barbarians and opportunists.
They could be right. Every brown envelope, every heartfelt apology in the face of a jail sentence, at all of the various fact-finding tribunals currently under way in Dublin tend to confirm their worst fears and our own worst conceptions of ourselves.
A little bit of Ulster honesty, minus all of the "Ochones, Ochones," might just go some way to alleviate the obvious moral laxity of the leaders of the majority of people of Ireland.
But let them prove it. Let David Trimble show once and for all that the unionists are big enough to realize just how much the rest of the island of Ireland is in dire need of their unique brand of integrity.
Within the Republic, politicians feel there is clearly a desperate need for political contributions, the necessity to keep "The Party" in power, irrespective of what it has done, what it may do, and what it really wants to do, while the devil takes the hindmost.
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They need an urgent dose of hard-headed reality. In time, the unionists may be just the people to make up the required dose. There are more important decisions facing this little island than the preservation of political power for its own sordid sake.
Before that can happen, the unionists are faced with their own political Rubicon, yet again. The British government, under pressure from Dublin and perhaps Washington, has finally declared that there will be no more concessions or inducements to bring them back to the Northern Ireland assembly. That announcement was not before its time. Because of their peculiar, allegedly best-practice voting system, the Unionist Council has to meet to decide whether the deal should be endorsed or thrown out. Apparently, it has to regularly endorse whatever initiatives the leadership of the party proposes to take.
Thus, a leader like Trimble is always a hostage to political fortune. Willingly or otherwise, the leader is a prisoner of the council and the wider assembly. He can be thrown to the wolves at virtually any time. It surely is a strange system that leaves itself open to virtual political anarchy.
Trimble has milked this unique structure for unionist purposes. His seeming weakness has become his strength in extracting the maximum concessions for unionism as a whole from the British government. Whenever he wants to extract an extra ounce of political flesh he has only got to grab Tony Blair by the hand while he squeals that he will face major problems with his party on decommissioning and the Patten Commission recommendations on the reform of the RUC.
Take decommissioning. The IRA could hardly have conceded more than it did when it declared that it would put its weapons beyond use as well as cooperate with the de Chastelain commission by opening some of its arms dumps to international inspection.
It could only go further if it was to agree to surrender all of its weapons publicly. But it was not quite far enough for the supposed right-wing rump of the Unionist Party, certainly not enough for Jeffrey Donaldson and the crafty John Taylor.
Trimble makes the point to Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson. Presto, Blair makes a statement to the House of Commons agreeing with the right-wing unionists that the IRA concession is not decommissioning, only the right step around the right corner. The unionists seem to have gained something; at least enough for Trimble to declare that he will push for the return of his party to the reconvened Northern assembly. He postpones the party council meeting for another week to give him time to sell the agreement.
The British government, desperate to ensure that he remains in power, is clearly capable of watering down just about any agreement it has made. It even reexamines the Patton Commission Report, finalized after extensive consultation with every section of the Northern community, to see if there is any way of making it more acceptable to the unionist community.
In so doing it misses the whole point of the exercise. The purpose of the Patten Commission was to investigate how the RUC could be made more acceptable to all sections of the community, particularly the nationalists. Sinn Fein and the IRA, quite rightly, continue to demand the full implementation of the recommendations.
It makes sense, but many unionists just cannot bring themselves to understand this critical point and its importance to nationalists. Even when they do, they cannot agree that the RUC should be radically altered.
This is understandable in the context of the tribally divided Northern Ireland. Ever since its inception, the unionists regarded the RUC as being their police force, established for their protection and armed for the purpose.
This is the political party that holds Trimble both as a prisoner and a hostage to ill fortune. You can divide its membership into several main categories. The most liberal element lives along what has come to be called the "Gold Coast," in north County Down. It is not so much liberal as uninvolved. It tends to regard violent unionist organizations in Belfast with upper-class disdain. It is liberal because it can afford to be. Fundamentally, its privileged members may be as anti-Taig and as anti-republican as any of the sectarian killers within the UVF or UFF. But they make less noise. In fact, they make very little noise about anything. However, because they have money, they also have clout.
What’s more, because so many of its more privileged members are canny businessmen with close financial involvement with the Republic, they are eager to grab some of the side benefits from the Celtic Tiger economy. Many have already done so. They have taken advantage of the enormous discrepancy between the value of sterling and the Euro currency to buy holiday homes in Donegal.
Naturally, they want political stability. Their political representatives bear a huge responsibility in the lead-up to the council vote on the reconvening of the Assembly. This time, they will have to make some noise. Mandelson was correct to claim that unionists would be crazy to turn down the proposed deal.
Most likely, they will indeed buy it. But be warned. The most surprising thing about the North is that, after more than 30 years, there are still surprises.