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Editorial Unionism at the crossroads — again

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Finally, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, has begun to campaign as if he actually believes that the IRA arms offer of two weeks ago is worth accepting.

After prevaricating for almost 10 days and allowing the siren "No" to exercise her seemingly irresistible charms over large numbers of his fellow unionists, Trimble has decided to take the helm and steer the ship of Unionism through the dangerous straits that lie ahead in the shape of this Saturday’s crucial meeting of the party’s ruling body.

The members of the Ulster Unionist Council must decide on whether to approve a return to power-sharing government, based on the deal (including the IRA offer to open its arms dumps for inspection) of May 5.

If that were all that was on the agenda, it would be a relatively easy passage. Unfortunately, it is not.

Thanks to a week during which the British government yet again went outside the terms of the Good Friday agreement by offering concessions on police reforms recommended by Chris Patten, nationalists are in danger of being alienated. Even if Trimble gets through Saturday with a "victory," it may well be so compromised that it will involve further negotiation before nationalists who have drawn the line on preserving Patten’s recommendations can be persuaded that enough of the original proposals remain to make it worth their while.

The pattern is now a well established one. First, Britain reaches an agreement with nationalists, republicans and unionists. Then, unionist hardliners squeal "sellout." Then moderate unionists panic. Then Britain goes outside the agreement to accommodate them. Then republicans say, the deal has been undone.

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It is coming perilously close to that again. The changes to the original Patten proposals as embodied in the bill being drafted to go before parliament have been rightly attacked by nationalists. A leading SDLP man has said that Patten has been "bastardized."

Already, there are warning noises coming from republicans that the IRA offer of a fortnight ago is at risk because of the policy of concession after concession offered to keep Trimble happy. And sadly, but predictably, the British cave-in still has not overcome the call of the siren "No."

Vision

More than 30 years ago a Unionist prime minister, Terence O’Neill, confronted his party and his community with the prospect of accepting change — in the form of the civil rights reforms then being demanded by Catholic protesters — or, instead, of rejecting it and becoming a "political outcast," with "Ulster" a place "continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations."

O’Neill’s vision was clear: "A Northern Ireland based upon the interests of any one section rather than the long-term interests of all could have no long-term future."

The choice was a stark one (though O’Neill had no idea at that moment just how stark it would become). Yet, we all know, tragically, which road "Ulster" chose to follow.

Trimble has eschewed with some disdain "the vision thing." He has preferred to concentrate on the more modest, pragmatic approach of convincing his fellow Unionists that this agreement is the best deal they will get. But, in fact, what he is engaged in, whatever he chooses to call it, is outlining a vision of what Unionism must become if it is to survive in the new Ireland. He too is talking about a "crossroads." Though this time it is Unionism itself that is at the crossroads.

Either Unionism shows that it is capable of adapting to the politics of inclusion, or it proves that it is still only interested in a politics based on privilege and position and ideological rigidity. In the North, inclusion means sharing power, agreeing to abolishing the symbols that identify the political and cultural privileges of one side over the other, agreeing, that is, to political, social and cultural equality.

To go down the other road means further division within the Unionist party (Trimble would almost certainly have to resign) and a prolonged and bitter period of recriminations within Unionism and between unionists and nationalists.

Unionists doubters and naysayers should pause to look at their own history. Unionists rejected reform in 1969 only to find themselves, four years later, going into government with the reformers in the first power-sharing experiment. Rejectionists, Trimble among them, brought down power-sharing in 1974 only to find, 25 years later, that the best deal on offer meant going into government with some of the revolutionaries who had helped bring the first attempt to naught.

If Unionists reject this deal, will the next one be more to their liking? The history of the North suggests it will not. So now is the time to say "Yes" and get on with fashioning a compromise that embodies the spirit of reform.

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