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Waiting for Trimbo
19th August 2003
Sinn Fein has been making most of the political waves over the summer, but to little effect. The future of political structures in the North and the shape of British rule is not being decided by them but by shadowy developments in the unionist party.
In a display of cynicism striking even for the Republican leadership, they have called for a plan B after years of selling the Good Friday Agreement because there was no alternative! Gerry Adams has done the rounds of the SDLP, Dublin and the U.S. with a new call for elections in the North. Everywhere he has been slapped on the back and guaranteed support, but the fact is the British will not call elections without a new deal and the US and Dublin will understand and sympathise with the British. The idea that Bush will slap his buddy Blair on the hand at the behest of Sinn Fein is simply laughable. The republicans have made a number of attempts to build street campaigns, but even their own supporters show little enthusiasm for what is essentially a call to bring back Stormont. The republican leaders have the dispirited air of people in a side show. The real action is elsewhere.
As in the Beckett play “Waiting for Godot” political movement has been awaiting David Trimble, leader of the Official Unionist party and former Premier of the colonial Stormont parliament. In the play we waited for Godot to arrive. In Ireland we wait for Trimble to go.
Trimble is a victim of a series of events proclaimed by the media as victories. In GoodFridayspeak it is victory:
• To win the Ulster unionist council support
for your position by just over 50%.
It is just remotely possible to imagine Trimble springing free with one bound using a simple stratagem that has served him well thus far – adopting as his own the most reactionary items of his critics programme.
What will not survive under any imaginable circumstances is the Good Friday agreement. It is Trimble’s support, and thus the agreement itself, which will not survive the summer.
In order to understand what has happened we have to understand the nature of the unionist debate. It is not the case, as the British like to pretend, that Trimble has represented a ‘moderate’ wing anxious to support the Good Friday agreement. Trimble drew on the experience of the Hillsborough agreement, where Britain gave Dublin an advisory role in the North in return for de facto (now de jure) recognition of the legitimacy of British rule. He argued that the unionists had lost a great deal by being outside the negotiations and would be best able to protect their sectarian privilege by working inside the agreement. Those to the right of Trimble (if there is anything more rightwing than a former leader of the semi-fascist Vanguard movement) argued that sharing government with Catholics in general and Sinn Fein in particular was too high a price to pay. In any case their experience of the Hillsborough deal was that they had not paid a high price for abstention. A Unionist campaign had forced the British to abandon all the state and constitutional structures they had planned, leaving only a small secretariat of Dublin civil service advisors who offered a conduit for the Catholic bourgeoisie in the North to petition for some share of political patronage. This hardly made a dent in the huge mass of quangos, committees and advisory bodies that had grown up over 30 years of British rule, the vast majority with inbuilt unionist majorities. The Unionists had after all forced the collapse of the original Stormont regime and overthrown the replacement set up under the Sunningdale agreement rather than accept any dimutation of their privileges.
In fact British policy made collapse inevitable. They had spent 30 years and endless billions defending their role in Ireland and preserving the unionist base for that rule. At the heart of the Good Friday agreement was a Trimble majority, demonstrating that the agreement was safe for unionism. But to maintain that majority Trimble had to demonstrate that he could secure the further humiliation of republicanism and limitation of nationalism. This meant that there were endless crises, each one resolved by the British tweaking the agreement to the right.
This was a totally painless procedure for Unionism. After each twitch to the right they simply demanded more. The price was paid by Sinn Fein, who had to explain to their supporters why the British kept popping up and suspending what was supposed to be an independent governing structure, and make greater and greater compromises on what had begun as the total negation of their own programme for an Irish democracy. It also left Trimble in the position of a man constantly threatening his own suicide. Sooner or later the gun would go off. If the British constantly conceded then there was no threat to unionist interests and no need to accept structures such as Stormont if the price was Sinn Fein in government.
The Good Friday agreement was a reactionary agreement, but it has fallen to the right and that means that what will replace it will be worse. Those who opposed the deal from the left or because of its absence of democracy have more work to do, not less. Their starting point must be what is proposed as a new initiative.
A settlement in the short term depends on a settlement of the divisions within the unionist party and the securing of a stable majority for that party. The achievement of this requires that Trimble go and that the Donaldson programme be adopted. The show is being held up by jockeying among the successors. The prince who wields the knife is unlikely to wear the crown.
What makes the Donaldson programme, if not Donaldson himself, key to unifying the unionists is that he has never rejected the Good Friday agreement – simply placing the condition of total and abject surrender by the republicans as a first condition – and more lately the demand that Dublin’s advisory role be downgraded as a second. Of course both of these conditions are useful in uniting unionism but are at the moment impossible demands for a settlement. The republicans have found that no amount of scurrying back and forward with amended surrender statements will mollify the unionists. Any reduction of Dublin’s role would risk the massive nationalist majority for the agreement that remains after years of disappointment.
In the background remains the unionist’s original position – a glorified county council with themselves as a majority government and the nationalists rewarded with the chairs of selected sub-committees. This is so unlikely a scenario that they have not even bothered to table it in current discussions.
The truth is that the Unionists have realised that they remain central as the political justification for Britain’s role in Ireland. As long as British strategy is based around a ‘moderate’ unionism there is no need to make concessions and they are best able to protect their sectarian privileges through direct rule structures which they dominate.
What is left then is direct rule. But it will not be direct rule as in the past.
• In the past British rule was opposed by a sizable minority in the North with a wide sympathy in the South. Now the republicans immediate demand is that the British bring back Stormont and the Southern constitution has been amended to support partition.
• In the past the formal programme of republicanism kept alive an anti-sectarian sentiment. Now Sinn Fein espouses an equality programme that seeks a Catholic share of privilege and sectarianism has risen to new heights.
• In the past the loyalist groups were condemned as the thugs they are. Now they benefit from state funding and are automatically granted a totally undeserved stature as representatives of Protestant workers.
• In the past the republicans were absolutely opposed to the sectarian police force. Now they have agreed in principle to join the police boards and are deeply involved in a whole series of local policing initiatives that depend upon co-operation with the RUC/PSNI.
So what we can expect is sectarian rivalry mediated by the British where they attempt to provide a continuation of the agreement without the government structures. There is no crisis for Britain because none of the factions challenge their rule. The crisis in unionism will tend to recede if they are no longer under pressure to share power with Catholics. The republicans will continue to be under pressure to surrender arms and fully endorse the state and the police. The British will keep up the pressure – they have already set up structures to punish Sinn Fein for IRA activity. They will be willing to reward republicans for compliance also, by including them in the web of patronage in which the unionists are already embedded, but not with the prospect of government ministries. It will be impossible to suggest that we are on some stepping stone to a united Ireland.
The republicans can comfort themselves with the absence of an opposition. Although there has been a substantial growth in republican opposition military currents, they have proved totally unable to mount a convincing political opposition.
There is however one fly in the ointment. The Good Friday agreement never contained within itself the basis of any democratic settlement. It was bound to break down. However it has done so without retaining the Stormont parliament. The history of the old Stormont demonstrates that with a parliament even vicious pogroms or the most extreme forms of state terror can be passed off as unfortunate faction fights between the Irish. Without the parliament the North remains a colony and the British retrain direct responsibility for the Frankenstein monster they have created. The smashing of the original Stormont was the greatest gain of the democratic struggle in Ireland. The fact that the British are unable to re-establish it, even in the absence of a mass anti-imperialist consciousness, bodes ill for them.