It seems increasingly unlikely that the Northern Ireland power-sharing government will survive the current crisis in Ulster Unionism brought about by the loss of the South Antrim by-election.
In the run-up to the Ulster Unionist Party’s party conference this weekend, the UUP leader, David Trimble, has come under sustained attack from the anti-agreement forces within his party to change course and return to a "no guns, no government" position, thus demanding that the IRA decommission within a set period or face the prospect of an Ulster Unionist walkout and a collapse of the government.
Before, Trimble fought off these attacks, and successfully held together a slim majority of supporters. But this week, the situation has changed drastically: Trimble seems to have joined forces with the anti-agreement side.
In an opinion piece in right-wing Daily Telegraph, published this week, he demands that the British government should impose a moratorium on implementing Patten until "decommissioning has occurred." He also demands a "reopening of the name issue." What’s more, he accuses the British prime minister of "giving in to terrorism."
If this article is an accurate reflection of internal party thinking, then the power-sharing executive, and perhaps the assembly, is doomed. If granted, the concessions that Trimble is demanding would certainly spark a collapse in nationalist support for the settlement, and could conceivably threaten not only the political process but the peace process itself.
The IRA could open its dumps for another outside inspection, as they did last June. But there is now some doubt as to whether that would be enough to keep the Unionists happy. They are talking about "real" decommissioning. In the meantime, the right-wing Tory press is claiming that the last arms dumps inspection was more or less a trick, with only obsolete weapons being shown and no inventory taken. Clearly, this is an attempt to substantiate the claims of anti-agreement Unionists, who have dismissed the gesture as not enough.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
These are ominous signs.
The British and Irish governments might be advised to face certain unpleasant realities. The first is that Trimble is unable to both lead the Unionist Party and the power-sharing executive. He cannot be both UUP leader and first minister at once. It is clear from his opinions as expressed in the Daily Telegraph that he has decided that leadership of the Unionist Party comes first.
The second reality is that under current circumstances a power-sharing devolved government is impossible to sustain in Northern Ireland. It simply cannot be made to work. Or, it can only be made to work at a cost that is too high — one that risks the unscrambling of the Good Friday agreement.
In the last 10 months such a government has been set up twice. On the first occasion, its existence was predicated upon the satisfaction of Unionist demands that went outside the terms of the Good Friday agreement. The second time round, Trimble’s decision to enter into government with Sinn Fein has eroded his support within unionism to the extent that his leadership is now under serious threat. In order to save him, the British would have to, in effect, renegotiate the agreement. This is more or less what Trimble is now asking when he wrote in the Telegraph, "this is not the agreement that I and my party endorsed in 1998."
Any attempt to renegotiate the agreement would be intolerable to nationalist opinion. To sacrifice the integrity of the agreement in order to preserve the UUP leader would be disastrous. So what is to be done?
London and Dublin must accept that it is inevitable that Stormont will be suspended sooner or later. Under the current circumstances it probably will not last until Christmas anyway.
The British government will balk at the prospect of reimposing direct rule. It goes against a fundamental policy of Blair, who has made devolution a cornerstone of his New Labor government. But the problem has been that in Northern Ireland, unlike Scotland and Wales, devolution has been a source of political instability. Furthermore, it has given the anti-agreement forces a platform from which to attack and unsettle the political process. And it has given them a political hostage in the form of the leader of the UUP, whose tenure as first minister has been made dependant on appeasing those hostile to the agreement.
Disconnecting the executive’s life-support system is not the same as closing down the agreement. There are many, and important, aspects of the agreement that are irreversible — the human rights legislation, the equality agenda, the reform of the law and the Patten report’s recommendations on policing, none of which need devolved government for their realization.
The truth is that since Unionists have proven once again they are not ready to work the institutions of power-sharing, it may be time to shut them down.