Thursday 20 September 2007

Fianna Fáil to organise in the north

Unionist reaction to the recent announcement that Fianna Fáil will organise in the north is both predictable and revealing. Fianna Fáil's lack of interest in the unionist squawking is also revealing, insofar as it demonstrates that unionism is essentially marginal to their thinking.

Predictably, the unionists are jumping up and down in anger at the thought of any 'southern' party having the cheek to organise in 'their' area. This reaction is one of unionism's oldest and stalest responses. As on other occasions, they have tried to threaten everyone else with dire consequences if Fianna Fáil goes ahead. Their main weapon, expressed by UUP leader Reg Empey, is a crude and badly formulated threat to stop working the current arrangements. As Empey puts it: "the prospect of Fianna Fáil ministers being in both the NI Executive and the Dublin government could put unbearable strain on the political process before it has had a chance to settle down". That little sentence contains both the unionist threat, and the unionist hope. Firstly, that 'unbearable strain' may break the current arrangements – in other words, the unionists may withdraw from them, but without any apparent idea of what consequences that would have. And the 'settling down' Empey refers to, reflects unionism's last shred of hope for its future – that the current arrangements in some way are a 'settlement', rather than a way station.

Alex Kane, a UUP strategist, followed his leader's example with a column in the Newsletter on 19 September, in which he complained that: "these proposals undermine the overriding purpose of removing Articles 2 and 3 – which was to reassure unionists that both sides, across Ireland and in Northern Ireland, could co-exist within their own clearly defined geographical and constitutional territories". This interpretation of the changes to Articles 2 and 3 is novel, at least. It is also, of course, wrong. The new Articles 2 and 3 merely make national unity an aspiration; they certainly do not promise that any party will stay on one or other side of the fence. If Kane really believes that the changes to the Constitution signified the abandonment of the aspiration to unity, then the UUP needs a better strategist!

Kane goes on to say that "Mr Ahern was sticking his nose in where it wasn't wanted", though surely this will be decided by the voters of northern Ireland, and not just by Mr Kane!

Revealingly, Kane also says that and that "the Irish prime minister (sic) seems to have decided that the Belfast Agreement isn't the concluding part of the peace process that some of us believed it to be". Again, this sentence tells us that the unionists really hoped that the GFA was the last word, despite the very wording of the Agreement which clearly indicates the next steps that may be taken along the road to Irish unity.

Lastly, and in the thinly veiled manner of unionist threats, Kane hints at violence: "It is a move which could have very serious, dangerous and violent consequences". For a people who have claimed to be law abiding and peaceful, unionists are never slow to hint at a violent reaction if they don't get their own way.

The unionist over-reaction to Fianna Fáil's perfectly legitimate decision to organise in the north tells us several things – firstly that unionism is still desperately clinging to the fast-sinking notion that the GFA is a 'final settlement', secondly that unionism still believes it can bluster and threaten everyone else with refusals to play the game, and thirdly, that when it realises that its tantrums are getting it nowhere, unionism still feels that it is acceptable to threaten violence.

Friday 14 September 2007

Phoney war, or phoney peace?

At the start of the second World War, from the declaration of war by France and Britain up to the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940, there was a period during which neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground. This period became known as the Phoney War.

In Northern Ireland the same thing is happening, but it is not yet clear whether it is a phoney war or a phoney peace. Both sides have signed up to power-sharing, but on the unionist side at least they have not yet committed to any significant compromises with their nationalist 'partners'. On the contrary, there have been numerous examples of unionists, particularly from the DUP, sniping at the 'enemy'; from trying to rubbish Sinn Féin's proposals for tax varying powers, to criticising the plans for a stadium at the Maze, to dismissing the idea of a united Ireland as an "impossible myth", to trying to block an Irish Language Act, and so on.

Meanwhile the real battle has not even started, or at least not yet publicly. The Executive has not yet agreed its Programme for Government, and one can only imagine the discussions that are going on behind closed doors to try to find a Programme that both sides will sign up to. As so often, the DUP is busy painting itself into a corner – by publicly sniping at suggestions from Sinn Féin, they are limiting their own room for manoeuvre. If they think that Sinn Féin are going to accept a Programme for Government that contains only DUP-friendly proposals, then they are showing political immaturity. The Programme for Government will have to have as much in it for Sinn Féin as for the DUP, and will probably have to contain things that DUP MLAs have publicly denounced. Where will they then stand? Will they eat humble pie, or will they desert the party, as so many lower-level members have already done? Will they join Jim Allister's planned new party?

One thing is for certain – once the Programme for Government is published the phoney war (or phoney peace) will end. The sniping will have to cease, because the Programme will be a Programme for the whole Executive, DUP included. Either the snipers will split the DUP, leading to an all-out (political) war, or they will be silenced and marginalised and all-out peace may break out, complete with officially sanctioned republican-friendly policies, and fully functioning North-South Ministerial structures. The next few months promise to be interesting!