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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Always The Centre Ground

Election Aftermath

Anthony McIntyre • 10 May 2005

The elections are over and all the results are in. The Ulster Unionist Party may console itself with the fact that its performance is not as bad as the Workers' Party. Small consolation it would be because no party's results are ever as poor as the Workers Party. UUP leader David Trimble, however, has decided against following the example of Rainbow John Lowry who has persevered in spite of every defeat in the sure knowledge that the day will come when he will be defeated again. Trimble, having led the Ulster Unionists to their worst election drubbing since the formation of the Northern state, is willing to let Lowry hold on to his crown as the North's most rejected politician and has bowed out.

This was the DUP's election. The party made serious strides towards its goal of monopolising unionist political representation. It is comfortably the North's largest party. Its nationalist nemesis, Sinn Fein, weathered a fierce storm to put in a firm showing but was far short from attaining the success pulled by the DUP. It failed to emulate the DUP routing of its main rival within its own community. The SDLP proved surprisingly resilient, managing to emerge from the election with as many parliamentary seats as it had gone in with. Even if party leader Mark Durcan's easy victory over Mitchel McLaughlin in Foyle fails to stabilise the party sufficiently to prevent death by a thousand cuts, the party's drawn out demise must deeply perturb Sinn Fein, who because of the SDLP's showing, has found itself seriously hobbled as it seeks to sprint towards becoming the largest party in the North.

The DUP are cock-a-hoop. We are eleven years, of sorts, into an IRA ceasefire and have heard the potential of the peace process extolled time and time again by Sinn Fein. Yet rather than the North showing any sign of moving towards union with the South, the 2005 elections have produced a unionism which is more united than it has been for decades and which is as robustly hostile to the project of Irish nationalism as anything that preceded it. Although Sinn Fein throughout the peace process trumpeted the divisions within unionism, it now seems that nationalism is more divided than unionism.

Yet it is the gap between the communities rather than within them that fuels the polarisation school of thought, where the logic is that this election has sounded the death knell for the Good Friday Agreement. Gerry Moriarty frames the big question: 'can the centre hold?' The middle ground has supposedly disappeared and the extremes stand on opposite sides of a gaping chasm where they see but don't hear each other. The DUP will now look to London and Sinn Fein to Dublin. This may be true but there are valid reasons for thinking that it is not.

Northern Ireland survived throughout the conflict because - the shrill discourse notwithstanding, more resonant of discord than accord - there was a large centre ground that held the place stable. There were plenty of crises but few possessed any substantive transformative potential. Societal infrastructure survived intact. Governmental coordination of the essential services functioned much the same as it did in conflict free zones. Political representatives continued to function even if stripped of a local assembly. Only at very rare junctures did society appear as if it might implode under the weight of civil unrest. This suggests that those energies that fuelled the middle ground have not suddenly dissipated or been usurped by more malign forms. More likely they have shifted their allegiance without significantly reconstituting themselves. In short, the centre ground that is given institutional expression in the template of the Good Friday Agreement is much stronger than the extremes. It hardly requires close scrutiny to observe that the extremes have for some time found themselves being reshaped in the image of the centre ground template. Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty has rightly made the point that the old labels of hard-liners and extremists no longer have the same explanatory power.

Even so, the governments, while having the magical fly killer of the centre ground, remain bedevilled by the problem of catching the flies. The post election situational logic suggests that the political terrain is more favourable to the DUP. A greater percentage of the Unionist population share the DUP's assessment of Sinn Fein, than the percentage of nationalists who hold Sinn Fein's view of the DUP. If London and Dublin have taken due note of this, and decide to push against the line of least resistance, then Sinn Fein is going to feel the knot tighten. And the party can hardly hope to sell last year's goods for the same price in a market of rising expectations.

What unionism would have settled for when the UUP was hegemonic no longer has the same exchange value. Were the IRA, leading on from Gerry Adams' pre-election 'appeal' to it, to make some major move on the weapons question it would only be offering the fee charged by a doorman long since pushed off the door. Matters have moved beyond the point of decommissioning having any real potential to break the deadlock. It is a hand that has been overplayed and the DUP are unlikely to gamble their chips against the same hand in the way that the UUP did and end up politically broke as a result.

Support or oppose the Good Friday Agreement, an inescapable political fact since the Northern Bank robbery and subsequent events is that devolved government and the continued existence of a militarised IRA are mutually incompatible. Summed up by Kevin Cullen's observation that 'there is no chance the DUP will share power with Sinn Fein, unless the IRA goes out of business.' The equation is simple: if the North is to have power sharing, there can be no IRA. If the IRA is to continue to exist, there can be no devolved government.

One option for the two governments within the template of the Good Friday Agreement is for them to undertake to legalise the IRA in both jurisdictions. If the point referred to Martin McGuinness is reached, 'where the IRA is not involved in anything, and I mean anything' then the only illegal activity the IRA would be engaged in is to exist. What purpose then for London and Dublin to keep it illegal? But legalising would be the sequel rather than the prequel to the IRA divesting itself of any military dimension. To achieve that status the IRA would not have to disband but in the words of McGuinness adhere to the belief that 'that the best way forward is by purely political and democratic means.' Rather than disband it could transform into something as demonstrably militarily innocuous as the GAA. It could remain loathsome to the unionists but that is hardly a felony. The Orange Order is loathsome to nationalists yet remains legal.

Such an initiative would unshackle unionism from its misgivings about having to enter government with those they call 'unreconstructed terrorists.' It would not have to make the call, placing a working trust not in republican promises but in government assurances, in the knowledge that the governments alone would look ridiculous if they were to legalise what continues to behave illegally.

Given that decommissioning as a deal maker is now a redundant concept, there is little to be gained by persevering with General John de Chastelain in his current role. It might make more sense to have him transferred to the IMC. While Sinn Fein has long opposed the IMC, it has lambasted all and sundry who felt there was insufficient transparency surrounding the decommissioning question, arguing how dare any one question the general's integrity. With de Chastelain in the IMC, Sinn Fein would find itself hard pressed to fling securocrat accusations the general's way, were he to concur with his new IMC colleagues that the IRA was not honouring its legal status. If it were measuring up, an IRA legalised and stood over by a de Chastelain empowered IMC would either place before Irish and British society evidence of DUP intransigence, or free the dominant unionist party up to enter a power sharing executive with those whom twenty years ago, sledgehammers in hand, it vowed to smash.



 

 



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Index: Current Articles



11 May 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

Always the Centre Ground
Anthony McIntyre

Those Voting Outside the Box are the Overall Winners
Sean Mc Aughey

Voting Respect
John Devine

Stand Down or Deliver
Paul A Fitzsimmons

Testing Free Speech in America
M. Shahid Alam

Whither Disorder?
Colin Kalmbacher


6 May 2005

Voting Bobby Sands
Anthony McIntyre

Ruritanian Mockney State
Mick Hall

It's a Dirty Job
Brian Mór

Listening
Fred A Wilcox

 

 

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