Category: Archive

Is it Yes or No?

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Frank Connolly

BELFAST – As Friday’s referenda loom, there is growing concern in Dublin and London that Unionists will vote in large numbers against the Belfast Agreement. Over the weekend two prominent figures in the Ulster Unionist Party, the MP for Lagan Valley, Jeffrey Donaldson, and his predecessor and former party leader, Jim Molyneaux, added their not inconsiderable weight to the No campaign.

Donaldson stated that he was not consoled by promises made during a flying visit to Belfast last Friday by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who attempted to shore up the Yes campaign by assurances on prisoner releases and decommissioning. Donaldson recognized his prime minister’s difficulty in stepping beyond the substance of the agreement but said that he could not morally justify a Yes vote.

He said that the prospect of Sinn Fein members entering the executive of a Northern Ireland assembly and the wholesale release of paramilitary prisoners without practical decommissioning was unpalatable for Unionists.

While his party leader, David Trimble, has also ruled out sitting down in a cabinet with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness while the IRA holds on to its substantial arms supplies, there is no such exclusion built into the agreement, which merely specifies that the process of decommissioning and prisoner releases be completed within two years.

Under pressure from a hard-line constituency organization, Donaldson is also keeping an eye on the possible future leadership of the divided Ulster Unionist Party, which now counts six of its 10 Westminster representatives in the No camp.

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Trimble’s failure to prepare the Unionist grass-roots for the compromises implicit in what is widely seen as a pro-Union Agreement is now coming home to roost and he faces the fight of his political life in the coming days and weeks.

For if a sizable number, perhaps a majority, of Unionists votes against the agreement, Trimble faces the prospect of the June 25 elections returning a large rump of anti-agreement representatives, which could endanger the Assembly and the other institutions established in the Good Friday deal.

The UUP leader may then be forced to adopt a more hardline stance against the Nationalists in the assembly and the executive and seek to delay or obstruct Sinn Fein’s involvement and the evolution of the North-South ministerial council, which is central to the deal.

Alternatively, Trimble can form a new alliance with Nationalism against the anti-agreement camp. Either way, it is a difficult, some say impossible, task for a leader who won his position by virtue of his virulent anti-republicanism and endorsement by the most intransigent elements of the Unionist family.

With the Orange Order also opposed to the agreement, the marching season will provide an opportunity for those antagonistic to the deal, with its perceived threat of a rolling united Ireland to play havoc on the streets. Donaldson’s role as assistant grand master of the Orange Order places him in a pivotal position within Unionism and may indicate a wider and more planned conspiracy to unseat Trimble for his acceptance of an agreement that threatens real change within the North and intensifies cross-border cooperation.

Last week, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which has killed more than a dozen nationalists in recent months, announced an unequivocal cease-fire and called on people to vote No. Members of the LVF, whose founder, Billy Wright, was killed in the Maze just after Christmas by INLA members, have attended several of the anti-Agreement rallies.

Eyes on Unionist tally

Since Sinn Fein endorsed the agreement at its recent ard fheis in Dublin, the overwhelming support of voting Nationalists will ensure a Yes vote. It is the scale of the anti-Agreement Unionist vote that will determine whether Trimble survives or Donaldson emerges as the new leader of Ulster Unionism. A comfortable majority for the Agreement, in the order of 65-70 percent in favor, will probably be interpreted as a victory for Trimble, as senior business, church and community leaders, as well as the two governments, will row in behind the UUP leader.

But even that would indicate a sizable minority of Unionists against the Agreement and bode ill for the future stability of the proposed institutions, although the votes will be counted centrally on Saturday and there will be no figure to indicate exactly how many from each community voted Yes or No.

While Blair has insisted that there will be no renegotiation of the Agreement and has indicated that the British will take a dim view of further Unionist intransigence, the No campaign has played little heed to his warnings.

William Thompson, the Ulster Unionist MP for West Tyrone, who has publicly shared platforms with the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Bob McCartney of the UK Unionists, has made no bones of the fact that the objective of the No campaign is to make the assembly, its executive and the North-South bodies unworkable.

“There are two camps within Unionism and the referendum will show that a majority of Unionists are not for the agreement,” Thompson told the Sunday Business Post.

“This will also be reflected in the result of the assembly elections. The Trimble Unionists won’t have an overall majority within Unionism, so the assembly won’t come into being.”

He said that the first and second ministers, to be chosen from the parties, most likely the UUP and SDLP, with the greatest strength after the elections, will not have a sufficient majority to govern, in particular to establish the North-South institutions.

“The first and second ministers won’t have a sufficient majority, and that is the endgame as far as we are concerned,” Thompson said. “The assembly will cease to operate and with it the executive and North-South bodies. The British government will scratch their heads and try something else.”

The internal tensions within Unionism have, if anything, encouraged Nationalists and Republicans skeptical about the benefits of the Agreement to vote in favor.

Attempts by Donaldson and his anti-agreement Unionist colleagues to blame the triumphal public appearance of the Balcombe Street gang, after 23 years imprisonment in England, at the Sinn Fein conference for the rising No tide has also been greeted with some cynicism among Nationalists, given that a prisoner-release program has been under way for some years and includes imprisoned loyalists.

At the same time, Unionists have given little credit to the Sinn Fein leadership for its compromising on some fundamental principles, including the key concession that the constitutional status of the North will only take place with the support of a majority living there.

While inserting this provision in the Irish constitution and diluting the definition of the national territory will be resisted by many Sinn Fein voters and other Nationalists in Friday’s vote in the South, the Republican leadership has effectively agreed to exchange these aspirations for the practical development of all-island institutions.

It is the fear that these will develop as a transitional step toward a united Ireland that is motivating the current trauma within Unionism. So is the prospect of a desectarianized and dramatically downsized RUC and other equality measures within the North.

Among Republicans and the wider Nationalist population on the island, there is a real and justified fear that constitutional concessions, including the radical redefinition of the national territory, will be conceded for little in return, although the changes do not come into force until the agreement is up and running in the North.

Neither the dissident Republican group the 32 County Sovereignty Committee or Republican Sinn Fein command enough political support to upset the likely trend in favor of altering Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, although many Nationalists will express their opposition to the changes.

When the votes are counted on Saturday, a solid majority in favor in the South and a comfortable endorsement in the North will merely set the scene for even more cataclysmic developments and a further fracturing of Unionism in the months and years to come.

(The writer is a special correspondent for the Sunday Business Post newspaper in Dublin.)

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