The threat from the Ulster Defense Association to end its 5 1/2-year-old cease-fire has come at a time when the whole of Unionism is in a state of acute crisis — a crisis that could jeopardize the peace process.
The UDA, using its "Ulster Freedom Fighters" cover name, cited the reason for its threat as an "orchestrated" campaign of "intimidation" to drive Protestants from areas in North and West Belfast that were once loyalist. The areas have been scenes of conflict between the two communities since the late 1960s, when the expanding population of nearby Catholic districts began impinging upon Protestant streets. This has been true in other parts of the North, and is an inevitable consequence of the changing demographics of the state.
The changing face of the North was first noticed officially in the census of 1991, which showed that Catholics numbered between 40-43 percent of the overall population.
It has led, unfortunately, to sectarian violence, especially in North and West Belfast, where about a third of all the victims of the conflict have died since 1969. This is largely because in the past the UDA has been fairly flexible in deciding what constitutes a "threat" to Protestants. It could merely include the fact that a Catholic family has moved into a house in an area considered Protestant.
Underlying the UDA’s threats is a deep-seated insecurity among loyalists and Unionists in general that goes far beyond local disputes over which streets are "Protestant" and which "Catholic."
Just before the UDA threat was announced, a leaked document about the internal state of the Ulster Unionist Party underlined the growing crisis within the North’s main Protestant party and the growing threat to the leadership of David Trimble. The document warned that Unionist parties could find themselves in the minority after the next elections for the Northern Ireland assembly, due in 2004 or 2005. It said that the UUP would be "lucky" to poll 100,000 votes in next year’s local elections, falling behind the SDLP.
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"We may be grateful for mandatory power-sharing," the report noted.
In other words, the Good Friday agreement is the best deal that Unionism could make, given that prognosis, and, therefore, sensible Unionists should be doing everything in their power to make it work.
Unfortunately, Unionism doesn’t normally function that way. As nationalists become more self-confident and assertive, it seems there is a drift toward more hard-line forms of Unionism. The UDA’s threat and the growing resistance within mainstream Unionism to the Good Friday agreement are two signs of the same basic phenomenon.
In is in the interests, then, of both Catholic and Protestant in the North to ensure that those who are still willing and able to uphold the current peace process be allowed to do so. Republicans and nationalists have a vested interested in making sure, as far as they can, that Trimble is given a chance to show Unionists that accommodation is good for them, and will help protect them in the future, when conditions may not be so favorable. That means demonstrating the kind of moderation that nationalists have long demanded of Unionists. It includes, in this instance, the IRA following through on its commitment to open its arms dumps for inspection. It means not allowing the UDA threat to scare republicans back behind their barricades of fear and suspicion. Indeed, all such barricades must come down if the long journey into a peaceful future is to continue.