historical context and political implications


Address to Hammersmith & Fulham Trade Union Council, London,

12 October 2000, by Daltún Ó Ceallaigh of Trade Unionists for Irish Unity.


The theme of the meeting could not be more apt. The peace process in Ireland has found itself at more than one cross-roads since it began and it is certainly at another now, with policing at the centre of it. What I would like to do is place this situation in brief historical context and then consider its wider political implications. I do not intend to go into the details of the Patten Bill (to call it that for short) and am sure that there are others who are more competent to do so.


I mention policing, yet, in reality, we are dealing with no ordinary policing set-up. You may have heard some of those sympathetic to unionists deprecating parties for allegedly having an army of their own. Yet the fact of the matter is that unionists had an army of their own from partition and up to the Seventies - until the British Government took it away from them. The B-specials were the paramilitary wing of unionism of a part-time amateur kind, while the RUC was largely so in a full-time professional capacity, when it was not engaged in efforts at crime prevention. Both were used as instruments for unionist persecution of nationalists. They enforced bans on nationalist publications and meetings, emblems and demonstrations, and were guilty of sustained sectarian harassment.


It is often stated that the ‘troubles’ started just over thirty years ago. In actuality, they commenced just over thirty-five years ago. In 1964, an election campaign was in full swing for the Westminster parliament when the RUC bludgeoned its way twice into the staunchly nationalist area of the Falls Road in Belfast in order to seize an Irish tricolour from a Sinn Féin office window, and caused the Divis Street riots. As for the disturbances of 1969, the British-appointed tribunal of Mr Justice Scarman described the police as being “seriously at fault” on a number of occasions. Examples were standing by while orange mobs burned out Catholic families, and firing a Browning heavy machine gun mounted on an armed car at the Divis Flats, thus penetrating a wall and killing a nine-year old boy asleep in his bed. Professor Brendan O’Leary of the London School of Economics has written recently: “The outbreak of armed conflict in 1969 was partly caused by an unreformed, half-legitimate police service, responsible for seven of the first eight deaths.” [1] The RUC has been the subject of official inquiries into torture, ‘shoot to kill’, and providing information on republicans to loyalist paramilitaries for assassination. It has been exposed even for internal sectarianism towards fellow Catholic officers and has watched while Catholic civilians such as Robert Hamill were beaten to death by unionists. You have no doubt heard the chant in news reports of “SS-RUC”. And nothing could more succinctly capture the standing of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the residuum of the RIC of imperial memory) in the eyes of many nationalists.


That was the state of affairs that had to be addressed, along with other things, in the Good Friday Document of Easter 1998. And the result? What has been designated simply as ‘Patten’. Patten is a huge compromise for nationalists. The RUC is not being disbanded or reconstituted. There is no guaranteed extraction from its ranks of those culpable of bigotry, neglect of duty, perverting the course of justice, collaboration with loyalist death squads, and murder.


And then there are the claw-backs on Patten put forward by Peter Mandelson in respect of: the new oath only for new officers, the Secretary of State’s and Chief Constable’s powers, the remit of the Police Board, district community policing, the Ombudsman, the Oversight Commissioner, and the Special Branch and Full-time Reserve. Many of these appear inspired not just by a reaction to unionism, but the fears of bureaucrats and securocrats that they will be cut down to size and held accountable in a manner that has not obtained previously.


What then are the unionists’ other main concerns - that the name and symbols of the RUC will be changed. For them the offending title is: the Police Service of Northern Ireland (the epitome of neutrality if ever there was one). You could be forgiven for thinking that the proposal was the ‘Irish Republican Police Force’. And next there are the symbols that are not to be tampered with - the portrayal of Irish subjection in the harp and entwined shamrocks surmounted by the crown, now being disingenuously characterised as an example of parity of esteem! Mere neutrality again has no part in unionist thinking.


The whole business at this level might seem absurd if it were not actually so tragic and revealing. Symbols, of course, are not unimportant. They sum up things for us or represent an underlying reality. The reality pointed to in unionism in this case is an unwillingness to compromise, to embrace genuine change, to face up to the democratic entitlements of nationalists. What is uncovered is an attitude of unreconstructed supremacism. They also talk about all the take from unionism and give to nationalism. But what are they alluding to - the concession of basic human rights, the dismantling of discrimination. That is the basis of their victimhood. They cite the pain of seeing nationalists who killed members of their community being released from prison; well, the nationalist pain is different regarding the police, because no RUC personnel who killed members of that community were ever put in prison.


I in effect speak of unionist party political attitudes; yet many ordinary unionists, who are not politically engaged, may still support the Good Friday agreement, if only reluctantly. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly unlikely that they are a majority in the unionist community. The snag also is that, insofar as they exist, and even if they are still in a slim majority, they are more and more abstaining from all forms of politics including the ballot box and thus ceding the day to the rejectionists.  We may thus be entering into a new crisis wherein those rejectionists pose a serious threat of gaining control of all the principal unionist parties, i.e. apart from the tiny PUP and UDP. What are the scenarios that must be contemplated in that light?


There are three. The first is appeasement of the rejectionists. The second is a regrouping of pro-agreement unionists. The third is modification of the Good Friday accord.


Appeasement of the rejectionists on Patten and perhaps, once more, decommissioning of IRA weapons is not an option, and any attempt to go down that road could give rise to the direst of consequences. Patten is, as indicated, an already fraught compromise, and compromise on the compromise is not feasible. As for decommissioning, that cannot be divorced from the rest of the agreement, and procedures have been put in place along with the two sovereign governments which should be allowed to progress unhindered by the raising of further demands. The appeasement picture is being painted in terms of ‘save Trimble’ with the only alternative being the collapse of the agreement. We must not be forced into this false either-or perspective, as I shall elaborate on below.


A regrouping of pro-agreement unionists has been discussed by commentators. This would entail (but probably only if Trimble concurred) a breaking away of such unionists from the UUP and linkup with other such unionists (with a capital or small ‘u’, like the Alliance Party or some members of the Women’s Coalition) so as to uphold the agreement in the Assembly and Executive, until the next Assembly election at least. The problem is: would the theory of this work out in practice even if it were tried?


Modification of the Good Friday agreement is the scenario that may (especially after the forthcoming Unionist Council meeting and the possible downfall of Trimble) have to be seriously looked at. As I have already signalled, it is wrong to say that, if Trimble is ousted, the agreement must collapse in its entirety. There are three levels within the accord itself concerning the island of Ireland - measures that can be taken by the British Government, measures that depend on the Assembly-Executive structure, and measures that relate to the NSMC-IB [2] arrangement. The latter two are of course interlinked.


Clearly, a post-Trimble context does not impede actions at the first level; indeed, it may facilitate them. They include advances in the spheres of equality, identity, demilitarisation, criminal justice, and - not least of all - policing. It is at the second level that modification would be needed. If the main unionist parties will not work the Executive and throw the Assembly into gridlock, a Commission could be agreed by the British and Irish governments to substitute for it, which would be comprised of representatives of pro-agreement parties (nationalist, republican and loyalist) and pro-agreement elements in unionist civil society - for example, persons from a trade union or business or community service background. While there may be a difficulty in getting the support of a majority of unionists in a new poll for the agreement or in by-elections, i.e. at least among those who come out to vote, there may well be some enlightened and courageous individuals who would be prepared to give a lead and take up the challenge in a Commission in the hope that, by the time of the next Assembly election, the agreement could be restored to its Easter ’98 form. On the legislative side, the Commission could also be empowered to have statutes drafted for submission to the UK and Irish parliaments, as appropriate, in substitution for Assembly legislation. The Assembly could still be left to debate and pass resolutions insofar as that is possible. And there is also now the Civic Forum to refer to in gauging the views of society in relation to governing and legislating. A Commission could then perform the function that the Executive otherwise would have in the NSMC, IBs, BIC and BIIC.[3]


Just as the simplistic assertion is often made that if Trimble goes, the agreement goes, it is also asserted that the only alternative then is a fourth scenario of plain joint authority between the Dublin and London governments. But, as I have outlined, that is not so. Indeed, one thing that northern Irish unionists and nationalists might be of like mind on is that, in no circumstance, do they want to leave their fates exclusively in the hands of the respective governments.


Ulster unionists amount to 2% of the United Kingdom. There are less than 900,000 of them  (including everybody from child to pensioner). Yet there are over 60 million people in these islands who are not Ulster unionists and have an interest in a settlement of the age-old dispute between Britain and Ireland. Every effort has been made to accommodate unionists. But if a majority of the unionist electorate constituting less than half-a-million people is now opposed to the Good Friday agreement, that must not be allowed to thwart the interests of 60 million others. There are times when a recalcitrant and anti-democratic majority within a community has to be stood up to and we may be fast approaching that stage.


What one has to cope with has been captured by a number of commentators recently who are far from being nationalist or republican. The anti-republican journalist Eilis O’Hanlon of The Sunday Independent has written: “The willingness of many Protestants to come out openly and rally in support of loyalist sectarian murderers is a striking example of the new mood of intolerance.” [4] (The only qualification I would make there is in relation to the word “new”.) The unionist pro-agreement analyst, Professor Paul Bew, has written: “While many unionists now regret the past rigidity of their political leadership [a euphemism if ever there was one], there is no such communal burden of guilt about the role of the RUC during the Troubles.” [5] Dr Maurice Hayes, former senior civil servant and ombudsman and member of the Patten Commission, has written of Mr Trimble’s absence from the launch of the Human Rights Act in Belfast: “many will wonder at his priorities and some will interpret it as a sign that at the first indication of trouble within the Unionist Party human rights [are] to be regarded as supercargo to be chucked overboard … ” [6]


The depth of retrenchment is shown in the controversy over flag-flying on public buildings. The nationalist position is ‘both flags or no flags’. The reasonableness of this may be grasped by noting that nationalists are not only assenting to the official hoisting of the union jack on Irish soil, but to the Irish national flag being raised on British-appointed days (such as the Queen's birthday). But that is not good enough for unionists - it’s the union flag and nothing else. The affirmation of one identity is defined as the abnegation of another. Unionists just cannot accept, as another commentator put it this week, that they are no longer freeholders, but shareholders.[7] Or, to employ a more historical allusion, Bourbon-like, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.


As I said to begin with, we are once more at a crossroads in the peace process. At a crossroads, a number of different paths lie ahead and one has to choose which to tread. If appeasement of rejectionists is not attempted and Trimble nonetheless survives, well and good; we proceed as is. However, should the path of appeasement be chosen, ironically it will be that of regression and not progression in any form, and could lead to disaster. If there is no appeasement and Trimble in fact falls, there are still positive choices, the best of which, I would suggest, is modification of the Good Friday agreement of the nature depicted.


As in all important issues, the task is not to try and start with the right answer, but the right question. And the right question here is not ‘how to save Trimble’, but ‘how to save the agreement’, ‘how to save the peace’.




[1] ‘Opinion’, The Irish Times, 28/7/00.

[2] North-South Ministerial Council- Implementation Bodies

[3] BIC - British-Irish Council, BIIC - British-Irish Intergovernmental Council

[4] 8/10/00, p 9.

[5] 7/10/00, The Irish Times, p 7.

[6] “is”, Irish Independent, 5/10/00.

[7] Tom McGurk, Sunday Business Post, 8/10/00.


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