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'Protestant Perceptions of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland' edited by Dominic Murray (2000)

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Text: Duncan Morrow ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh



Duncan Morrow


The collapse of the Stormont system in 1972 and the four years of trauma which led up to the abolition of Unionist majority rule remain the pivotal events in Northern Irish politics in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In a sense, they together represent Northern Ireland’s political anno domini. Thereafter, hindsight confirms, all efforts to restore Humpty Dumpty were doomed. A political culture of Unionist domination, public tranquility and submerged but ever more polite sectarianism gave way to chaos, open and violent inter-communal division and direct rule.

In ripping the umbilical cord connecting Ulster Unionism and political power in Northern Ireland, the British Government was embarked, logically if not explicitly, on a revision of the constitutional arrangements for Ireland devised in 1920 and 1921. The British Government, however vaguely, now accepted the need for an examination of the fundamental political construction of Northern Ireland. The state, and Unionism, was at least part of the problem. This more than anything else was the real break with Unionist rule.

There was no single plan, no blueprint or even conscious intent to embark on wholesale change on the part of many of the politicians involved, but the arrival of William Whitelaw as first Secretary of State for Northern Ireland within the UK Cabinet confirmed a formal re-engagement of the apparatus of the United Kingdom state with its chaotic devolved offspring and the renegotiation of the political basis for any British state presence on the island of Ireland.

Whereas, before direct rule, Unionists monopolised direct and organic access to the political, administrative and security apparatus in Northern Ireland, after 1972 the British Government signaled its intent to bring Nationalists and Catholics into the staatsvolk even in the context of a vigorous and violent IRA campaign. The events of 1968 and 1969 had destroyed the claims to political neutrality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the eyes of an ever-more critical audience outside Northern Ireland. The complete failure, in both political and security terms, of the introduction of internment without trial in 1971 and the events of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972 heralded the end of British attempts to resolve the problem of civil unrest among Catholics by security means alone. While the IRA campaign, especially as it spread to the British mainland, was the central concern of all policy, the security stick was thereafter supplemented with a bunch of carrots aimed at building a cross-community governmental structure, reducing social and economic differentials between Protestants and Catholics, encouraging pluralism in education and community provision and supporting inter-community contact.

Although by 1968, a more liberal element within Unionism had accepted the need for civil rights reform, there was a substantial group unwilling to acknowledge anything which would attribute fault to the design of the state, however tacitly. Northern Ireland was, in this view, a fully functioning protestant-led democracy threatened by republican and authoritarian terror. In this view, the problem was defined as a threat to the security of the state requiring a strong security response. As the level of republican violence rose, many set their face against any concessions. The abolition of Stormont came as a profound shock to this school of thought and inevitably drove most varieties of Unionism into direct, if paradoxical, opposition to their own government.

But if the abolition of Stormont represented the zenith of Unionist unity in the late twentieth century, it was a unity only maintained on a common defence of the past. As early as 1974 the more moderate leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) sought to engage with the British reform agenda. The result within Unionism was division and political paralysis when Brian Faulkner’s Unionist-led power-sharing executive quickly collapsed under the pressure of the (Unionist) Ulster Worker’s Council strike.

While the strike destroyed Unionist participation in power-sharing, it did not, in the long run, divert either the British Government or political Nationalism from a determination to create an inter-community administration. In fact, the strike reinforced rather than destroyed the argument that Unionism was part of the problem of Northern Ireland rather than its solution, in spite of the majority Unionist report of the 1975 constitutional convention . Over time, the cross-community principle which surfaced in the power-sharing executive was slowly but inexorably expanded while Unionist Party access to the levers of power was becoming an increasingly distant memory.


Unionism is a movement whose unity consists largely in its common rejection of all things Nationalist. There have always been a number of distinct elements within Unionist ideology which compete for precedence. These include religion, allegiance to the crown and an ideal notion of British liberty. To these can be added the problems of all catch-all movements or parties around class, regional and rural-urban differences. In the male-dominated world of Unionist politics, gender has never formally surfaced as a political cleavage. The events of the 1960s and 70s and the reintroduction of proportional representation in 1973 allowed the full political expression of these differences.

By the 1980s, four inter-connected but distinctive political strands within Unionism could be identified. Enoch Powell, an Ulster Unionist MP after 1979, was a powerful influence on many Unionists arguing for the full integration of Northern Ireland into the Westminster parliamentary system. Intellectually, integrationist Unionism understood itself as a preference for a distinctive citizenship rather than a claim to national self-determination with direct parallels to Irish Nationalism. Of course, full-blooded integrationism would ultimately destroy the rationale for the existence of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) itself. Given Unionist hostility to many British government actions in Northern Ireland, integration was always an idea with greater intellectual than practical appeal especially beyond the relatively peaceful and prosperous areas in suburban Belfast. Integrationism also had to overcome the profound opposition to it within the leaderships of the large British parties. Both Conservative and Labour Parties resolutely preferred to maintain their remaining neutrality in governing Northern Ireland which alone accounted for their greater freedom of movement in governing Northern Ireland compared to local Unionists. Even after grassroots pressure forced the Conservative Party to agree to field candidates in Northern Ireland in 1989, the leadership of the party acted to limit the effect of the decision.

This contradiction partially accounts for the emergence of a new ‘contented class’ who eschewed any active involvement in Unionist politics and were generally supportive of British governmental efforts to establish economic and social stability at the price of political inaction. While instinctively and culturally Unionist, they experienced their Britishness as an identification with the mainstream of British cultural and political life through the institutions of direct rule and the integrated aspects of the UK economy. In effect, they resolved the contradiction of Powellite by adapting to the imperfect structures of direct rule and absenting themselves from direct involvement in party politics.

Integrationist influence was never universal, however, and even competed with other elements inside the UUP who remained committed to devolution and to a distinctive Ulster Unionist tradition. This was particularly true among rural Unionists, who were traditionally more hostile to central control, and among those who were strategically committed to Unionism as a cross-class and cross-party alliance for the defence of the Union in Northern Ireland. This alliance had to be broad enough to include religious, rural and working-class critics of direct rule under a single strategic umbrella. By far the largest of these groups outside the UUP was the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with Ian Paisley as its leader. The DUP continued to articulate Protestant fundamentalist opposition to Catholicism, thereby distinguishing themselves sharply from all other parties at Westminster. Although vehemently opposed to power-sharing, the DUP were strong advocates of devolved government. In effect they spoke for a distinctive ‘Ulster Protestant Nationalism’ with few links to political parties outside Northern Ireland and characterised by populist campaigns and Protestant fundamentalist ideology. Finally, paramilitarism and the loose political organisations surrounding the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) provided a further forum for political debate. Although the lack of ideological cohesion in this period meant that they were most easily distinguished from other brands of Unionism by their urban working class culture and the overt acceptance of paramilitarism. Nonetheless, the rise in loyalist violence after the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the rise of the Ulster Clubs suggested that support for direct political violence could quickly spread beyond these core constituencies.


If the abolition of Stormont was the single most crucial event for Northern Ireland as a whole, then the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed in Hillsborough in 1985 represents the watershed within Unionism itself. Until that Agreement, Unionist proposals for the future of Northern Ireland largely sought to avoid any commitment to power-sharing or inter-community government. The fact that a British government, indeed a Conservative one, had signed a treaty with the Republic of Ireland without any direct consultation with Ulster Unionists came as a profound shock to the Protestant community. Unionists were especially hostile to the establishment of a joint British-Irish Civil Service secretariat based outside Belfast.

Like the abolition of Stormont, the initial reaction of Unionists was a common rejectionist front. Through the ‘Ulster says No’ campaign, Unionists of all shades united in an attempt to undermine its operation at every level. Huge public demonstrations were backed up by a campaign of civil disobedience orchestrated through Unionist-led district councils and the mass-resignation of Unionist MPs of all shades. There was dark talk of disquiet within the police force and a measurable rise in loyalist terrorist activity. Leading mainstream politicians, including Ian Paisley, associated themselves with new organisations like the Ulster Clubs and Ulster Resistance who made thinly veiled threat of resort to paramilitary violence.

In spite of the furore, the British Government continued to back the new arrangements and, by 1989, the energy behind Unionist opposition to the Agreement had largely dissipated. The mass demonstrations evaporated, the police held the line as Orangemen were rerouted in Portadown and the local council protests foundered on the rock of court cases and the objections of Protestant constituents who found services withdrawn. Although Unionist MPs could claim that their resignation strategy proved majority hostility within Northern Ireland to the new Agreement, the case was weakened when one MP was defeated at the subsequent by-elections. While active loyalist terrorism rose above pre-1985 levels it did not precipitate any new security crisis.

Ultimately, the ‘Ulster says No’ campaign foundered on the fact that the British Government had achieved a degree of political autonomy from Ulster Unionist pressure by 1985. The Anglo-Irish Agreement itself, unlike the power-sharing arrangements of 1973, was not dependent on Unionist participation and operated on an inter-governmental level. The Unionist campaign was also severely hampered by internal weaknesses, including the fact that Unionists did not agree on any single proposal to replace the Anglo-Irish strategy and by a deep aversion to any identification of Unionism with vigilantism among a core element of Unionist support. The growing political power of Nationalism meant that campaigns such as the Council boycott were only effective in areas with overwhelmingly Protestant populations. Finally, in spite of real bitterness and ideological anger, the effect of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, confined as it was to inter-governmental, security and bureaucratic arrangements, had only an indirect affect on daily life. In an improving economic climate the culture of political apathy in large sections of the middle classes ultimately predominated.


By 1989, the Anglo-Irish Agreement had clearly achieved a degree of functional legitimacy. Although there were increasing attempts to force British political parties to organise in Northern Ireland, focused initially on the personality of Robert McCartney and the atypically middle-class area of North Down, Ulster Unionist leaders had little choice but to re-enter the local negotiating fray. More than ever, they appeared as the opposition coming in from the cold. By 1991 both main Unionist parties agreed to enter talks involving the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the British and Irish governments.

The talks were interrupted by the British General Election in 1992. The chief significance of this event for Unionism lay in the defeat of the only serious Conservative candidate in North Down by the sitting independent Unionist. With hindsight, the fact of talks aimed at devolution combined with the loss of momentum among the integrationists was decisive. In spite of integrationist Robert McCartney’s victory in a subsequent by-election the dynamic behind full institutional integration was coming to an end

The outcome of the so-called Brooke-Mayhew talks was ultimately of little long-run significance, finishing in stalemate and considerable bad feeling between the Unionist Party leadership and John Hume, in particular. However, the talks did establish a new series of precedents and a common basis for negotiations between governments and the two great streams of Northern Irish politics. For the first time, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) accepted and recognised a role for the Irish government in formal negotiations about Northern Ireland. In addition, the UUP accepted the so-called three-strand agenda - internal arrangements for Northern Ireland, North-South relations within Ireland and British-Irish relations as a whole - on the supposedly safe basis that ‘nothing was agreed until everything was agreed.’

The distance which Ulster Unionism had travelled since 1985 can be measured by the reaction to the events of 1993. The Anglo-Irish Agreement convinced a new generation of leadership, that Unionism could not simply oppose British policy in Northern Ireland, and expect thereby to veto all change. Re-engagement with a British Government-supported agenda for Northern Ireland meant the acceptance, at minimum, of the power-sharing agenda, something recognised in effect by the Brooke-Mayhew talks.

After 1985, Unionists were deeply suspicious of the potential for secret deals. They thus reacted with extreme wariness when it was revealed that the SDLP leader was involved in a new and unpublicised round of negotiations with Gerry Adams the leader of Sinn Fein. Rumours that Hume and Adams had reached a secret accord and had involved the Irish government, were greeted with Unionist fury. In the midst of the outrage a bomb exploded on the Protestant Shankill Road killing ten civilians. Within a week, a loyalist terror brigade had responded with a shooting spree at a pub in the largely Catholic village of Greysteel.

In this context, the British and Irish governments accelerated efforts to produce a new accord, culminating in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993. While the Declaration was largely a reformulation of the Anglo -Irish Agreement, there were three main distinctions. For the first time since 1920, Fianna Fail, the inheritors of the anti-Treaty tradition in the Irish Republic signed a formal arrangement with a British Conservative Government. The creation of a political umbrella of this width carried considerable implications for all parties in Northern Ireland. Secondly, much of the language in the Declaration was geared at enticing the IRA to renounce political violence.

The Irish government was in simultaneous contact with John Hume and Gerry Adams and the Declaration represented an attempt by both governments to create the conditions for a new dialogue, this time including both governments, Unionists and Sinn Fein. To Unionist chagrin, although hardly to their surprise, the British declared that they had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland. But while bending to Sinn Fein notions of Irish self-determination, the Declaration also modified the claim to include the notion of parallel consent, North and South. Finally, unlike 1985, the UUP leadership was consulted on aspects of the negotiations between the governments. As a result, although the DUP denounced the new proposals, the Ulster Unionists took a much more pragmatic stance. Within the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) there was a strong feeling that total rejection along the lines of the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be disastrous. Party leader James Molyneaux contented himself with a muted non-commital response and an ongoing attempt to impose parameters on both the British government and IRA from a Unionist perspective especially around the conditions for any future talks.

In the immediate aftermath of the Declaration, the IRA seemed to be prevaricating uncomfortably, seeking endless ‘clarifications’ from the British government. The announcement of a ‘complete cessation to all operations’ caught many observers by surprise and simultaneously created tactical problems for Unionism. On the one hand, an IRA ceasefire was an event of such magnitude in Northern Irish politics that it could not be ignored. Its very popularity handed Republicans a propaganda weapon should Unionists be accused of refusing an offer of peace. On the other hand, the reflex instinct of all Unionists when faced with an apparent ‘gift’ by the IRA was to question the contents.

The refusal of the IRA to use the word ‘permanent’ to describe the ceasefire became the lightening conductor for Unionist suspicions of IRA motives. In order to reassure them, John Major promised that any political Agreement would be subject to the approval of the Northern Ireland parties, the Westminister Parliament and a Referendum in Northern Ireland (the so-called triple lock). Six weeks after the IRA ceasefire, loyalist paramilitaries responded on the basis that ‘the Union is safe’.


Since the early Home Rule crises, Ulster Unionism has been concerned with securing the British identity of Ulster. In the face of British indifference, Unionist internal unity was seen as a prerequisite of all successful politics, understood in practice as Protestant domination of the key instruments of power. While this Protestant domination is not central to the ideology of all forms of Unionism, it becomes essential, because the pursuit of security within Britain requires a minimum standard of loyalty. For many complex reasons, upbringing within the Protestant tradition becomes and often became the easiest effective shorthand for the exercise of the presumption of loyalty or disloyalty.

After 1920, the most effective way to achieve Unionist goals was through identification with the institutions of Northern Ireland. After 1972, these institutions no longer existed. By 1994, Unionism had lost any positive institutional focus and was instead divided on whether the goal was integration or devolution. The ceasefires further altered the political map. In spite of the abandonment by the IRA of its ceasefire between February 1996 and July 1997, the central political focus in London and Dublin after 1994 was on the construction and maintenance of a maximally inclusive framework for political dialogue. Problematically for Unionists, ‘inclusive’ was ultimately a euphemism for the inclusion of Sinn Fein, and through them of the IRA, in political negotiations. While the IRA was active, Unionist arguments that negotiations with Sinn Fein were tantamount to the appeasement of terrorism had defined the limits of political dialogue in Northern Ireland. The SDLP thus acted as the only recognised representatives of Irish Nationalism. The outcome of the Hume-Adams dialogue was to fundamentally alter this division.

Negotiating with republicans represented an existential challenge to Unionists. But given the support of the British and Irish governments for the ceasefires, not to negotiate represented an equally difficult choice. In seeking to answer the question of how to respond, Unionism found itself deeply and bitterly divided. The fact that the division of Unionism was a long-term strategic goal of republicans did not make the choices any easier.

The depth of the divisions only became visible over time. In September 1994, the ceasefire was widely regarded by most Protestants as a tactical Trojan horse whose intent was to prosecute the war by other means. The alienation of Unionism from the British mainstream since 1972 and 1985 meant that the engagement of a British government in the process provided no specific guarantees of security. Even the triple lock, although technically watertight, was regarded by many Unionists with the pessimistic suspicion of people who had ceased to believe in anything watertight.

Nonetheless, the momentum behind the process kick-started by the ceasefires was considerable. British and Irish public opinion and all political parties were enthusiastically committed to the new process. The involvement of the American government had increased enormously even before the ceasefires, when Gerry Adams had been granted a visa to visit the US against British Government advice in spring 1994. After the ceasefires, the European Union signalled its intention to support all movement towards peace through the creation of a ‘Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation’ which sought to underpin movement at elite political level with financial support for social and economic development on the ground. In a province heavily dependent on the economic beneficence of these partners, the emerging international unanimity was a powerful influence on political leadership, if only indirectly so on the electorate.

Within Northern Ireland, the mere fact of the ceasefires was widely popular. Nationalists in particular regarded the IRA gesture as a radical change and demanded a political response. Under James Molyneaux, the UUP adopted a position of pragmatic scepticism, relying heavily on their connections with the Conservative Party at Westminster for influence and firmly declining the invitation to be involved in the National Forum for Peace and Reconciliation established by Albert Reynolds in Dublin. Acutely aware of the dangers of political marginalisation as demonstrated in 1985 by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Molyneaux could rely on broad, if unenthusiastic, support from the mainstream of the UUP and among the leadership of key civil institutions such as business and the largest Protestant churches.

To the surprise of many who had failed to observe changes in working-class Unionist politics, the strongest support for talks came from among loyalist paramilitaries and in particular from former loyalist prisoners. Two new political parties emerged - the Progressive Unionists (PUP) attached to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) drawn from the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) - both of which advocated direct dialogue with Sinn Fein and campaigned against the DUP in its urban working-class heartlands. Given the paramilitary connections of the new ‘fringe loyalist’ groups, there was never any possibility of a formal alliance with the PUP. Indeed the UUP leadership emphasised that direct negotiation with Sinn Fein was dependent on the prior decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and extended that demand to all paramilitaries.

IRA weapons were the emotional heart of the appeal of Unionist opponents of the emerging process. The decommissioning of those weapons became the essential symbol which alone could confirm to Unionists that Republican violence was at an end. The theme was first introduced by the British Government and presented by Sir Patrick Mayhew as a precondition for the opening of talks involving Sinn Fein. It was categorically rejected by the IRA. For the next five years, this was the issue which defined the negotiating dilemmas of Ulster Unionism. Within the Protestant community as a whole, there was near-unanimity, outside of paramilitary circles, that decommissioning was a precondition for democratic legitimacy. In contrast to Republican assumptions, the overwhelming conviction of the Unionist community was that IRA terror was barbarous crime.

Paisley and the DUP opposed any co-operation with the Anglo-Irish strategy and made clear that they would not participate in direct dialogue with Sinn Fein under any circumstances. Paradoxically, he was supported in this by his erstwhile opponent, Robert McCartney. It was clear, even for the Ulster Unionist Party, that negotiation with a still-armed IRA with no intention of disarming would open them to powerful charges of appeasement and betrayal.

Molyneaux’s leadership was severely shaken by the publication by the two Governments of the ‘Framework Documents’ in 1995 which contained British and Irish proposals for North-South harmonisation and an emphasis on an all-Ireland dimension. For his critics, both within and beyond the UUP, the Documents were evidence of the limitations of Molyneaux’s strategy of influencing events from behind the scenes at Westminster. Six months later, Molyneaux resigned his leadership of the party and was replaced by David Trimble, widely regarded as the candidate most hostile to political negotiation.


The new dividing line in Unionism was in many ways a repetition of the divisions in Unionism in the late 1960s and early 70s. On the one side were those who laid emphasis on non-negotiable ideological positions and on the other was a resurgent civic Unionism which sought a pragmatic compromise which would allow the emergence of less violent politics within the framework of agreed partition. The new pragmatists laid emphasis on the risks inherent in refusing to engage with a process in which the British political elite was heavily invested, pointing out that refusal to engage in a process which had the wholehearted support of all major parties at Westminster would weaken rather than strengthen the Unionist case. They argued that negotiations could provide a forum to secure major strategic gains for Unionism, particularly the abolition of the hated Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution. Furthermore, and in spite of the events of 1974, many local councils had institutionalised power sharing at local level between the UUP and SDLP. What had once been controversial had become locally routine.

David Trimble’s elevation at a young age to the post of Ulster Unionist leader came as a shock, not only to outside observers, but to many of his older, more traditional colleagues in a party which has traditionally venerated experience. His success had been cemented by his public participation, alongside Ian Paisley, in a stand-off between Orangemen and Catholic residents at Drumcree in his own Upper Bann constituency in July 1995. An attempt by the Orange Order, traditional bulwark of Unionism and Protestantism, to march through an area predominantly populated by working-class Catholics was prevented by police when residents organised a counter-demonstration. Matters were only resolved after days of intense and increasingly tense negotiations and a small local parade was permitted. In the aftermath, Trimble and Paisley were greeted as heroes by flag-waving Protestants as they marched hand in hand through the centre of Portadown, to the bitter anger of the Catholic residents. Far from ending the matter, however, marching generated a legacy of intense conflict on the streets which was to be a constant theme of the next years.

So long as the British Government was prepared to support the demand for prior decommissioning, the initial focus of dispute was between London and Republicans. As the Conservative Government was rapidly losing its parliamentary majority, the potential leverage of the Ulster Unionists was growing in direct proportion. In spite of his reputation, Trimble made clear that he would retain the strategy of sceptical engagement, albeit with a markedly different style.

So serious was the decommissioning dispute that the process was only saved from collapse in November 1995 by the appointment of an international Commission to investigate decommissioning under the chairmanship of former US Senator George Mitchell. In February 1996, the Commission proposed that decommissioning should happen in parallel with negotiations. An unhappy British government proposed that negotiations could begin but only after elections to ensure democratic legitimacy. Citing British procrastination and deliberate obstruction, the IRA ended its ceasefire by exploding a massive bomb at Canary Wharf in London in February 1996.

Nonetheless, and to the dismay of Unionists of all shades, the subsequent elections produced major gains for Sinn Fein and emphasised the divisions within Unionism. Protestant votes were spread between two large Unionist parties, three smaller parties and the cross-community Alliance Party. The UUP, although the largest Unionist grouping, gained less than 50% of the Unionist vote, emphasising the seriousness of the cleft between permanent rejectionists and potential negotiators. The splits surfaced almost immediately when the DUP and UK Unionists rejected George Mitchell as the chair of the proposed talks while the UUP, after some hesitation, agreed to accept him.


For its supporters, the summer of 1996 represented the most difficult period in the peace process. The IRA was actively bombing targets in England and was thus precluded from entering any talks. From the point of view of Irish Nationalism, the purpose of the peace process was to bring Sinn Fein into direct negotiations. Talks without them were, in the words of one anonymous Irish official, ‘not worth a penny candle’.

The strong preference of Unionist leaders was to conduct negotiations with the SDLP as the sole legitimate representative of Nationalism. But any remote possibility that such a strategy could succeed was removed by the rioting and widespread public disorder which followed the blocking of an Orange parade by the RUC at Drumcree in July. When the police decision was later reversed, Catholic anger with the RUC and with Unionism extended far beyond core Republican circles.

David Trimble’s personal participation at the stand-off, complete with Orange sash and rumours of face-to-face meetings with leading hardline loyalist paramilitaries, illustrated the dilemmas of the UUP leader. On the one hand, Trimble’s position within Unionism depended on the support of core elements of the party. Drumcree was, and is, in his own constituency and less than a year previously he had become Unionist leader with the support of Orange Order votes. On the other hand, it could be argued, that the events at Drumcree in 1996 strengthened the determination of Nationalists to secure long-term change and weakened Trimble’s position in wider negotiations. Television cameras relayed pictures of the events to a world-wide audience which were widely interpreted as illustrating Unionist bigotry. There was a measurable deterioration in community relations throughout Northern Ireland and the events seriously undermined the already weak capacity of the RUC to be accepted as an impartial police force by Nationalists. More immediately, the SDLP withdrew from any engagement with the newly-elected Forum in protest, thereby effectively destroying any potential it had for indirect negotiation or reconciliation.

There was also soul-searching among Protestants. Images of Orangemen and armed loyalists in direct and bitter confrontation with the RUC and the obvious humiliation of the police when forced, under Orange pressure, to reverse their decision was not without problems for Unionism. There were boycotts of Protestant businesses in areas where Catholics were in a majority and the number of protests against marches merely multiplied. Within the Protestant churches, many questioned the commitment of the Orange Order to remain within the law. If nothing else, Drumcree 1996 illustrated the nature of the alternative to negotiation for Unionist as well as Nationalist.

Real momentum towards negotiation only returned after the landslide Labour victory in the British General Election of May 1997 and a rather narrower victory for Fianna Fail in the Irish Republic a month later. The new Labour Government, freed of any reliance on Unionist votes in the House of Commons, represented a powerful challenge for Unionists. Not only was the Labour Party historically sympathetic to Irish Nationalism but the new Government was committed to constitutional reform of the United Kingdom, starting with devolution in Scotland and Wales. In effect, the option of integration into a single imperial parliament, the dream of a substantial section within Unionism, was now stone dead. The only question at hand was whether to participate in British-sponsored attempts to negotiate devolution.

When the IRA called a second ceasefire in July 1997, the UUP could no longer avoid a critical strategic choice. Without any guarantee of parallel IRA decommissioning, Sinn Fein were promised immediate entry into political talks. The spotlight necessarily fell on the UUP, divided as ever on participation. To counter the obvious charge of betrayal leveled by the DUP and even from within his own party, Trimble embarked on a formal consultation with civic leaders within the Protestant Churches and business circles. In spite of strong Orange Order opposition, there were clear indications that key elements in Unionist society now advocated negotiations. Although DUP protests were supported by, among others, a number of UUP Westminster MPs, Trimble agreed to participate in the multi-party talks with the proviso that there could be no bilateral meetings between UUP representatives and Sinn Fein before decommissioning. Throughout the negotiations, the Unionists held to this condition. The participation of the smaller loyalist parties ensured that over 50% of Unionist voters at the Forum elections were now represented. Decommissioning, however, was not forthcoming.

In the course of seven months of detailed negotiations, there were no final breakdowns, despite breaches in both loyalist and Republican ceasefires. Eventually, after hours of last minute negotiations, the Good Friday Agreement emerged, based on the three strands established in 1991 and including provisos for a new Northern Ireland Assembly, institutionalised power-sharing, new North-South bodies exchanged for the ending of any territorial claim by the Irish republic and a new British-Irish Council. During the negotiations, primary emphasis was laid on the importance of constitutional structures. But the Agreement also included provision for the early release of prisoners convicted for paramilitary offences, an independent review of policing arrangements and a commitment by all parties to ‘use what influence they have, to achieve decommissioning within two years’. Subsequent to the Agreement it was clear that it was these additional themes which created turmoil among Unionists.


A matter of hours before David Trimble agreed to sign the Agreement, one of his most high-profile lieutenants, Jeffrey Donaldson, walked out of the talks. Donaldson objected to the provisions for early release of paramilitary prisoners and to the lack of any guarantee that decommissioning would begin before Sinn Fein entered government. He quickly became the figurehead for those within the UUP who opposed Trimble’s strategy including six of the UUP’s ten MPs at Westminster. To counter the potency of these accusations, Trimble obtained a handwritten letter from Prime Minister Tony Blair confirming his understanding that decommissioning should start immediately the Agreement was signed.

The governing Council of the Ulster Unionist Party met to debate the Agreement clearly and openly divided. In spite of opposition, Trimble won 70% of the Council’s votes in support of the Agreement. Nevertheless, the division within Unionism was profound. More than half of the party’s MPs remained opposed and joined with DUP and UK Unionists in the campaign to defeat the Agreement at the referendum.

Although the Agreement technically required a majority of 50% plus one to come into force, it was clear to all observers that the structures of the Agreement, built as they were on the notion of ‘sufficient consensus’ between Unionists and Nationalists, required at least half of all Unionists to support the deal. During the campaign, the Agreement’s opponents highlighted the principles at stake. Under the slogan ‘It’s right to say No’, they attacked the Agreement’s provisions for the early release of Republican prisoners and the absence of any secure guarantees for decommissioning. Opinion polls conducted during this period recorded the volatility of Unionist electors. Less than a week before the referendum, polls showed a majority of Protestants opposed. Among Unionists, the campaign in favour of the Agreement was surprisingly muted until the final week, when David Trimble agreed to high profile photo opportunities with Tony Blair and John Hume of the SDLP.

In the event, 71% of all voting electors supported the Agreement in Northern Ireland. The turnout, at over 80%, was well above average for elections in Northern Ireland indicating that a considerable proportion of the ‘contented’ classes had decided to participate. Although the result was only released as a single figure, opinion poll data confirmed that the Agreement had won the support of the overwhelming majority of Catholics. According to one exit poll, every parliamentary constituency with the exception of North Antrim recorded a majority in favour of the Agreement (Sunday Times, 24 May 1998).

It was clear, however, that interest in the Agreement had roused a number of voters to the polls who had largely ceased to participate in Northern Irish politics. This was especially true in largely Protestant eastern Ulster. The participation of the contented classes, traditionally supportive of British policy, combined with the fact that the polls used the term ‘Protestant’ rather than Unionist, thereby including many Alliance voters in the Protestant bloc, resulted in some difficulties in interpreting the results. Whatever the case, there is little doubt that the division within overt Unionism was almost 50-50.

The results of elections to the new Northern Ireland Assembly, which took place one month later, certainly confirmed the same pattern. Protestant votes were distributed among five competing Unionist parties, the Alliance Party and a number of mostly anti-Agreement independents. Although ending up with the largest number of seats, the UUP was beaten by the SDLP in terms of first preference votes, for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland. Although the UUP (28) and PUP (2) held a slight advantage in terms of seats over the DUP (23) and UKU (5), the fact that a number of UUP members nurtured serious doubts about the Agreement made David Trimble’s position precarious.

The UUP leadership survived an immediate crisis over Drumcree, but the death of three boys in Ballymoney as the result of a sectarian attack, followed one month later by a bomb in Omagh illustrated that potent opposition remained. It was also becoming clearer that the doctrine that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ which was intended to create a degree of safety for all those negotiating the Good Friday Agreement had not applied in the case of decommissioning. In the absence of any IRA willingness to begin the process, the UUP leadership stalled on further political developments. Excepting the smaller paramilitary-linked parties, any disagreement within Unionism over the Agreement itself was removed on the question of IRA arms. Successive attempts to resolve the issue foundered, most spectacularly in July 1999. The impasse was only broken by George Mitchell in autumn, when he manoeuvred the leadership of both Sinn Fein and the UUP into direct face-to-face meetings, away from the glare of the media.

When it became clear that the resulting deal still did not guarantee actual decommissioning, Trimble’s leadership came under renewed attack. Ultimately, at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in November 1999, 58% of delegates agreed to support the creation of a new all-party executive for Northern Ireland, on condition that decommissioning had begun by February 2000. As the executive came into being several days later, the scale and depth of Unionist divisions over the issue were visible to all. There were audible gasps of disbelief when Martin McGuinness, widely believed by Protestants to have been chief of staff of the IRA, was named by Sinn Fein as the Minister of Education. In spite of a relatively successful devolution, decommissioning failed to materialise by February. The Secretary of State, after some delay, stepped in to suspend the executive, simultaneously saving Trimble’s leadership and outraging Nationalist opinion. The extreme vulnerability of the leadership was demonstrated in April when Trimble was re-elected as leader by only 57% of the Ulster Unionist Council.


By 1999, Unionism, the dominant ideology in Northern Ireland since 1920, was split into two bitterly opposed camps. The division was not one of goals or loyalty. All Unionists were agreed on the goal of opposing Nationalism and upholding the relationship with Britain. However, the strategic and tactical consequences of this allegiance split the Unionist parties and their voters into two increasingly bitter blocs.

Unionists who supported the Agreement argued that no Ulster Unionist strategy which relied on permanent and outright opposition to British policy in Ireland was ultimately coherent. Power-sharing was the acceptable price of an Agreement which resulted in Irish Nationalist support for the principle that the boundaries of Northern Ireland could not change without the expressed consent of a majority of voters in Northern Ireland alone. The rewording of Articles Two and Three of the Irish Constitution, the emergence of a society freed from serious terrorism and the engagement of local politicians in local decision-making were all held up as measures of the success of Unionist negotiators.

Unionists who opposed the Agreement argued that it had come about through the appeasement of terrorism, resulting in an agreed role for the Government of the Irish Republic in the affairs of Northern Ireland, a concession of the principle of majority rule and the abandonment by Britain of any attempt to defend Britishness in Northern Ireland. More potently, they argued that the Agreement had not delivered IRA decommissioning while accelerating the release of convicted murderers from prison.

Emotionally and rationally, the Unionist population reflected the depth of the dilemmas facing the Unionist parties. On the one hand, there was widespread antipathy to government with a still-armed republican movement and open hostility to prisoner releases or any attempt to change the symbolic face of policing. On the other hand, the prospect of renewed violence and the strong international support for the Agreement argued for an acceptance of its broad terms.

The depth of the dilemmas posed created difficulties for all Unionists. The UUP was openly split, with six Westminster MPs opposed to the Agreement and a number of UUP Assembly members expressing considerable doubt. By the end of 1999, the pro-Agreement Unionists in the UUP relied on the paramilitary-related PUP to control even half the Unionist seats in the Assembly. Furthermore, Trimble’s leadership of the party depended on the willingness of the IRA to engage, at least symbolically, in some recognisable act of decommissioning.

Those who opposed the Agreement had their own dilemmas, however. Although the DUP remained united, they were forced to participate in the institutions set up under the deal. Pro-Agreement Unionists therefore continually accused their opponents of hypocrisy and opportunism. Furthermore, the Anti-Agreement forces were split between four parties in the Assembly, with only the distant prospect of greater co-ordination.

The crisis facing Unionism is a crisis of predicament. Outside Northern Ireland, there is negligible support for the traditional Unionist view of democracy, whereby Unionists have a right to power in Northern Ireland by virtue of their electoral majority. The only prospect for a return to active participation in Government is through an acceptance of the Agreement or something very like it. Nonetheless, to accept this premise is to accept the ultimate failure of the Unionist and Protestant project as it has been conceived since the early Home Rule crises of the 1880s. Security, in this view, lies not in Protestant exclusivism or in reliance on the British state but in a new and untested relationship with Catholics and Nationalism in Ireland. While such a new relationship carries huge compromises for traditional Nationalism and Republicanism in the medium run, the immediate institutional changes are all weighted against the traditional Unionist-dominated structures. Emotionally, government with republicans remains counter-intuitive and undesirable for many. To favour the Agreement is to begin, and as yet only implicitly, to acknowledge that the traditional Unionist state has failed and the Britishness in Ireland must be negotiated not imposed.

In such a context, any number of events might pose a threat to the continuation of devolved government: a failure by the IRA to decommission, the implementation of the proposals of the Patten Report on policing reform, a DUP victory at the next Assembly elections, serious riots resulting from an Orange march, a sustained republican bombing campaign by a splinter group. On the other hand, the determination of the British and Irish governments and their international supporters to continue with the search for inter-community consensus remains a serious problem for those who would bring the Agreement down. Support for a government structure in Northern Ireland which reaches beyond the traditional Unionist heartland remains a critical commitment in all such strategies. All of the current indications suggest that the only replacement for a formally devolved administration is a strategy of direct rule by the British Government on broad lines agreed between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The outcome of the 1990s peace process may ultimately depend on the strength of these contradictory forces on the Protestant mind and behaviour.


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CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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