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

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Text: Barry White ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh


Barry White


As someone attempting to comment on Protestant perceptions of the peace process, I should give some background about myself. I am a journalist born, living and working in Belfast for nearly all my life. I spent two years in my early twenties in another country, Canada - something I believe should be obligatory for all the Irish - and have always felt somewhat detached from, although intensely interested in, the politics of the island. I write for the Belfast Telegraph and other publications, mostly about Northern Ireland politics, which I have reported and commented upon for more than 40 years. I come from a liberal Protestant and small-u unionist background, which I hope gives me some insight into the thinking of the majority in Northern Ireland. But I do not have a strong sense of religious or national identity. I feel mostly British, because that is the context in which I grew up, with most of my relations living in England, but I have no difficulty accepting that I am partly Irish, because of geography and part of the culture I live within. Regretfully, I have had too little contact, except through the media, the arts, my work and visits to the Republic, where two of my three children now live, with Irish culture. Here, for simplicity's sake, I use "Protestant" and "unionist" interchangeably.

Peace process is a term that was adopted about the time that John Hume of the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein began their dialogue in the early 1990s, and it means many things to many people. Essentially I think Protestants see it as a loaded expression, since it implies that there has been a genuine war, waged with a certain justification by republicans, and that by engaging them, one is trying to reach a compromise which recognises that their objectives can be pursued - and perhaps reached - without violence. As many Protestants refuse to accept any justification for the war, they reject the assumption that republicanism can be bought off in any way, regarding all attempts at peace-making as appeasement. But there is little coherence in the response of Protestants, who range from the born-again to the devoutly secular, retaining all the Presbyterian characteristics of individualism and non-conformism.

To me, the peace process is the means by which the two communities in Northern Ireland are beginning to rethink their unhappy relationship and heal some of the hurt they have done to each other over the centuries, and particularly over the past 30 years. To do this, some hard historical thinking has to be done by both communities. Unionists have to accept that the partition of Ireland in 1921 was an unsatisfactory means of dealing with an ethnic time bomb which, left untreated, was bound to explode. Nationalists have to accept that by their ambivalent attitude to the state in which they found themselves and by their natural identification with the Irish state, which continued to pose a threat to Northern Ireland, they left themselves open to exclusion. In contrast to unionist suspicion of a peace process which concentrated on republican concerns, nationalists saw it as a means of advancing the cause of Irish unity by peaceful rather than violent means. Liberal unionists could live with this concept, provided it was based on the principle of consent, but others still hankered after their ideal of military defeat of the IRA. The peace process, as they saw it, was an international conspiracy, consisting of Sinn Fein/IRA, the SDLP, Dublin, London and Washington, to undermine the union and eventually unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, where Protestants would be in a 20pc minority instead of their current 55pc majority.

Because of these fears, many Protestants are not comfortable with the whole idea of a seemingly interminable process, which to them has no perceivable political end in view which they could endorse. It is important to remember that they already have a constitutional settlement, within the United Kingdom, which suits them ideally. Any alteration to this, to make Northern Ireland more acceptable to the nationalist community, must be a dilution of their British identity, to be regarded with great suspicion if not hostility. They would say that republican paramilitaries have been engaged in an unjust war and that the proper ending would be for the IRA to sue for peace. They resent the fact that because of pusillanimous governments, the IRA is undefeated and in a position to bargain. They speak as a community that has been in a position of superiority over the native Irish Catholic community since plantation days in the 17th century and finds it difficult to come to terms with late 20th century realities, requiring that minority opinion has to be accommodated. It has always relied on numbers and force, rather than political argument, to maintain whatever privileges it enjoyed, and has normally found Britain a willing supporter. Because it has no experience of political debate beyond advocacy of unionism and nationalism, where there is no possibility of conversion, it is badly equipped to deal with opposition based on a subtle combination of physical force and political persuasion, marketed superbly in the outside world. It has a simple approach to right and wrong - state violence right, illegal violence wrong - and cannot understand why British governments have gradually moved away from unswerving support of the unionist cause towards accommodation of many of the objectives of nationalism.

The current peace process, which contrasts so sharply with all previous attempts to quell republican uprisings by force, has to be seen in its historical context. Most unionists have little idea of how Northern Ireland came into being, except that the founding fathers refused to accept any British sell-out to violent Irish nationalism, as they fear could be happening at present. After partition, which northern Protestants accepted as a second-best option to rule from London, they had their own parliament, with their own one-party government in perpetuity. They had peace, interrupted at 10-yearly intervals by IRA campaigns that never elicited support from the nationalist community, and saw no reason to include a potentially-rebellious minority in the institutions of a British state. Only when the Craigavon-era unionist politicians were in decline, and Terence O'Neill took over as a pragmatic Prime Minister in 1963, was there any attempt to secure the goodwill of the nationalist community, particularly the first generation of university-educated Catholics who refused to accept second-class citizenship. It was gesture politics, based on cross-border exchanges with Dublin and visits to Catholic schools, and was opposed as too little or too much by the extremes on both sides. When the civil rights movement tried to achieve real change, emulating street demonstrations on human rights issues elsewhere in the world and uniting Catholics, neither the Protestant population nor the Stormont government knew how to react, except to resist. Reforms were dictated by London and, when the IRA re-emerged in the early 1970s, it was easy for Protestants to see republican violence, rather than underlying injustice, as the cause of the breakdown of law and order.

Catholics were much more articulate, media-conscious and politically aware than Protestants who relied on their inbuilt majority and perceived the history of the 1970s and 1980s as one of nationalist gains and unionist losses. Catholics had the backing of a world-wide Irish diaspora, led by a supportive Dublin government, while the Protestants not only had to face the indifference of Britain but were cruelly misrepresented at

home and abroad by the bigotry of Ian Paisley, combining all the worst qualities of narrow Protestantism and unionism. It should not be forgotten that within the broad Protestant community there is a largely apolitical section of the middle class which does not identify with the stereotypes of unionism or nationalism. It sympathised with the Alliance Party, while it had strong personalities supporting the existing constitutional position as the will of the majority, but there has been a significant falling away in recent years. The class element in the failure of Catholics to challenge Protestant domination in society and politics should not be underestimated. Until the 1960s, the small Catholic middle class, in the professions, tended to keep its head down, like Protestants in the south of Ireland. It was only the leadership of a few, mainly outside conventional politics, that provided the basis for the civil rights campaign, which became a mass movement uniting the new middle class and working class. This unity of purpose between the SDLP and Sinn Fein has largely survived, under John Hume, although the conflict has mainly involved working class Catholics and Protestants, whose loyalties are increasingly split between the conventional parties and those linked to paramilitary organisations.

London made one attempt to create political stability by helping to forge an alliance between moderate unionists and nationalists in the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, leading to a short-lived power-sharing executive. Before it could establish itself, however, the demands of British politics intervened, and a disastrous general election for the power-sharing unionists was swiftly followed by a loyalist-driven general strike which ended the five-month experiment. Unionists continued to resist power-sharing throughout the 1970s, only to see a new menace arrive in the early 1980s, when the IRA hunger strike in the Maze encouraged the revival of Sinn Fein as a potent political force. Alarmed by the success of the republicans ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy, Dublin and London countered with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. This boosted moderate nationalism by creating an inter-governmental council and an Anglo-Irish secretariat, which allowed Dublin a formal role in representing northern nationalist interests. Protestant alienation replaced Catholic alienation and distrust of Britain was heightened when the government responded favourably to the first stirrings of the peace process in the middle of an intensified IRA bombing campaign on the British mainland. Since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement only a year after an IRA bomb in Brighton nearly destroyed her government and after she had rubbished the pro-nationalist conclusions of the pan-nationalist New Ireland Forum, Protestants felt they had good reason to question British intentions.

The unionists never reconciled themselves to the Agreement, although in practice it made little difference to the form of direct rule from London that had been operating since the breakdown of the executive in 1974. The IRA campaign continued unabated, proving to many Protestants that republicanism could not be appeased, but by the time John Hume re-opened his dialogue with Gerry Adams in 1993 the British and the IRA were already engaged in secret talks, basically because they had reached a stalemate. Both sides knew they could not win, however long the troubles had lasted. Intervention from Dublin and Washington, through President Clinton, helped prepare the republican movement for a historic ceasefire, in 1994, as a preliminary to political talks. Progress was delayed, however, because of the IRA's refusal to consider decommissioning of weapons, and violence was resumed in 1996, only to be halted again a year later after a landslide election permitted the new Labour government to drop the Tories precondition of a surrender of guns before talks. Although Protestants were, and are, wary of any settlement involving a party which Prime Minister Tony Blair accepts is "inextricably linked" to the IRA, the majority supported the talks process, defying a minority led by Ian Paisley and Robert McCartney who urged a boycott. The active engagement of the two Premiers, Blair and Bertie Ahern, was a crucial factor in arriving at the 1998 Good Friday deal that struck a balance between Protestant and Catholic interests, replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement with a devolved Assembly and abolishing Ireland's constitutional claim to Northern Ireland in return for guaranteed power-sharing in government and powerful new cross-border bodies.

While most Protestants welcomed the improved atmosphere arising from the peace process and the ceasefires, they remained suspicious of the motives of those involved, including the Labour government, Dublin, the SDLP and, particularly, Sinn Fein. Although they stood to gain from the restoration of devolved government and nationalist endorsement of the principle of consent, they had lost, at least psychologically, by having to include Sinn Fein in the new administration. They were fearful for the long-term future of the British link, with devolved structures evolving in Scotland and Wales and with nationalists given equal representation with unionists in the 10-member executive. Despite their reservations, however, especially over police reform and early release of terrorist prisoners, the 71pc pro-Agreement vote in the subsequent referendum is reckoned to have included about 55pc of unionist voters, many of them persuaded by pledges delivered by Tony Blair. A month later, they were less decisive, and David Trimble's unionists finished second in terms of votes, for the first time in history, to the nationalists of the SDLP, although they retained a narrow majority over anti-Agreement unionists. The picture had not improved by the time of the European election in June 1999, after a year of fruitless bickering, and not only did the UUP finish a poor third, just ahead of Sinn Fein, but the anti-Agreement parties polled 60pc of the unionist vote.

Since its inception, on the back of London's declaration of virtual neutrality, the peace process has had a chequered career. It brought comparative peace on the streets, broken only occasionally by the crack of bones under baseball bats or iron bars wielded by republican or loyalist paramilitary law-enforcers, but failed to produce the political stability that was to follow. It was an uneasy peace, between Protestant and Catholic communities that still did not mix at the level where it counted, in the working class, and who still had little trust in each other. Optimists would say this was inevitable, after 30 years of open hostilities, and that the experience of living and working together, in a new political environment, would cement the peace. Pessimists, on the other hand, would argue that since the unionist majority is dwindling fast, Protestants would become increasingly defensive of their British identity and culture at the same time as Catholics became more assertive. Mainstream unionism and nationalism, represented by the UUP and SDLP, were under great pressure from the extremes, making the implementation of a historic compromise between the two, like the Good Friday Agreement, even more problematical. The Belfast deal, of course, was the crowning achievement of the peace process, demonstrating that even when unionists had their backs against the wall, pressurised by British, Irish and international opinion, they were capable of producing a leader like David Trimble, a former right-winger turned pragmatist, like many of his ilk. In return for self-government, an end to the Republic's territorial claim and acceptance by Sinn Fein of the need for decommissioning, he was prepared to sit down with former terrorists in government.

Politically, the main effect of the process so far has been to introduce more splits into the unionist family, while nationalists have remained solid around the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Even before the Agreement, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP) refused to negotiate with any of the parties representing paramilitaries - Sinn Fein, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) - and since the signing, more breakaway groupings have been formed. In all, there are some eight unionist parties in the field at most elections, helping to shred the unionist vote and demoralise the Protestant community. The loudest dissenting voice is still Ian Paisley, 40 years on, and although his DUP may never overtake the UUP - unlike the position of Sinn Fein and the SDLP - it is a constant threat to every unionist leader trying to make the case for reconciliation.

The high point for unionist confidence in the peace process, and the Agreement, was reached in May 1998 when Tony Blair backed up an earlier letter to David Trimble with a written public assurance that "those who use or threaten violence (would be) excluded from the government of Northern Ireland". Before Trimble would sign the Agreement, he had extracted a letter from Blair saying that decommissioning should begin "straight away", and this was enough to swing the Assembly party. The implication was that if decommissioning did not begin, or if Sinn Fein even hinted at a return to violence, the Agreement would fall, and this was largely responsible for the sizeable pro-Agreement vote by Protestants. From then on, however, the graph moved gradually downwards, beginning with the Assembly election, which left Trimble with an anti-Agreement rump in his own party and needing PUP support for crucial cross-community votes in the Assembly. Slender hopes that Sinn Fein would move beyond the Agreement pledge "to use any influence they may have" to achieve decommissioning of all paramilitary arms by May 2000 "in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement" were soon dashed and eventually David Trimble was forced to choose between collapsing the Agreement or proceeding with devolution, on condition that decommissioning would follow.

Protestant support for the Agreement, which always depended on an end to the paramiltary threat, was slowly eroding but, in a supreme act of faith, the Unionist Council backed its leader's confidence that the IRA would reciprocate. It was a close-run thing, 58pc for and 42pc against, but on 2 December 1999 a new era of devolution for Northern Ireland began, only slightly overshadowed by the knowledge that the Unionist Council would abort it in February unless IRA decommissioning had begun. There was another potential setback when, by the operation of the d'Hondt system of selection, the post of Education Minister fell to Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, a former IRA leader who had left school at 15. Equally unanticipated was the choice of Bairbre de Brun, a vociferous opponent of the RUC, as Minister of Health. With two Sinn Fein members in charge of half the Northern Ireland budget, entrusted with care of people from cradle to grave, the new system faced an enormous challenge, particularly from Protestants.

Republicans had sacrificed some of their core values, like their refusal to recognise partition or the right of Northern Ireland to decide its own destiny, but unionists had to accept that a minister who had participated in an armed struggle was now responsible for their children's education. If the new ministers and institutions, including the north-south bodies, could prove their worth, there was a chance that a majority of Protestants could learn to accept them, but obviously they would be severely tested. The best hope lay with the dual leadership of Trimble and Seamus Mallon, representing the progressive forces of unionism and nationalism, as well as the guiding hand of Peter Mandelson, a subtler political operator than his predecessor, Mo Mowlam, who had lost the confidence of the Protestant community.

There was an understandable feeling, throughout the Protestant community, that their politicians were constantly being outmanoeuvred by the guile of a pan-nationalist front, in league with a British government that simply wanted to insure itself against republican bombs in London. Although the Orange Order abandoned its confrontational stance during the 1999 marching season, and effectively conformed to the demands of

the Parades Commission, there were no apparent rewards. The historic Drumcree parade, the focus of so much resentment, was postponed indefinitely without violence, but the Garvaghy Road residents still refused to indicate what, if anything, they would regard as an acceptable march.

The future of Northern Ireland, as well as the peace process, seemed likely to remain in the balance for the foreseeable future, hovering between a devolved government in which the participants were often at odds and a return to direct rule. George Mitchell returned briefly, and effectively, in the autumn of 1999 to chair a review that finally broke the impasse over the IRA’s refusal to contemplate decommissioning, obtaining a commitment from Sinn Fein that if the institutions were put in place the IRA would appoint an interlocutor to the de Chastelain commission. As promised, Trimble went back to his party with the deal, but to get his majority in a sceptical Council was forced to fix a deadline of the end of January, by which time Gen de Chastelain would have to have issued a favourable report. As doubting Protestants saw it, he kept his side of the bargain, consenting to the inclusion of two Sinn Fein members in government, but the IRA didn’t. Amid last-minute confusion, Peter Mandelson suspended all the institutions that had been so painfully constructed after 72 days, making sure Trimble continued as UUP leader but antagonising nationalists. Under pressure from all sides, they came to understand that devolution was doomed without a positive statement on decommissioning by the IRA. It finally came in May 2000, breaking new ground by proposing independent inspection of some arms dumps, as a confidence building measure, and promising to put arms "beyond use", provided the Good Friday Agreement was fully implemented. Trimble accepted that the IRA’s sincerity should again be tested, agreeing to restore the executive, but even though he succeeded in moderating the Patten proposals in the draft legislation for the new police service, he only won party approval by 53pc to 47pc, a signal that Protestant unease was rising. People still wanted peace, but the price being demanded by nationalists was almost too much.

With some relief, the Assembly and the executive resumed in June where they had left off, although there were two new threats to their existence. Firstly, the nationalist community was so unhappy with the way Patten’s reforms had been diluted in the Police Bill that there were fears not only that support would be withheld from the new force, but that the IRA might not begin the decommissioning process. Secondly, the DUP planned to make a mockery of the executive, by accepting its two posts and then beginning a process of changing its ministers on a regular basis. Trimble was being dared to exclude these rebel unionists, while embracing Sinn Fein - something that might be immensely damaging to the UUP at the next election.

While the future of devolution remained on a knife-edge, no one could be confident that there was sufficient consensus within the two communities for significant progress to be made in the peace process, despite the laudable intentions of the drafters of the GFA. Essentially it was a sectarian solution, based on the entrenchment of two opposing political ideologies, to the challenge of making Northern Ireland work, and it can be argued that far from removing the constitutional issue from politics, it emphasised its importance at a time when the population balance was changing and unionists were feeling increasingly isolated. Although there are many Protestants like myself who see the peace process as a means of helping unionists to accept that there are two legitimate views of Northern Ireland’s destiny, and to try to reach an accommodation, a sizeable minority are likely to continue to resist the change that is inevitable on demographic grounds. In Belfast City Council, Sinn Fein became the largest party, but its nominee for lord mayor in 2000 was defeated by the combined votes of the unionists, including two UUP Executive Ministers, fearful of a hostile reaction by the Protestant electorate.

Protestants have a right to feel that successive governments have never been honest about their intentions in Northern Ireland - dominated, as they are, by the desire to preserve the IRA ceasefire - and that Tony Blair won their consent to the Agreement by false pretences. The implication, in his pre-referendum statements, was that decommissioning would be a condition of Sinn Fein membership of an executive and that without movement by the IRA, the controversial early release of prisoners would be withheld. Little attention was paid, in the referendum campaign, to the independent commission under Chris Patten that would recommend major changes to the RUC in September 1999. It is also indicative of the unionists’ political naivity that they should have been surprised by its radical content. "What else did you expect?" said Patten, when challenged, and it appeared that, outwardly at least, David Trimble and the UUP had been relying on the retention of the RUC name and symbols, despite the need to make a fresh start. Had there been a proper understanding of the implications of voting "Yes" to the Good Friday deal, with all its finely-balanced pluses and minuses for the future of the union, the result might have been much closer, with a small majority of Protestants in the "No" camp. Whereas Protestants were still inclined to believe government spin, often against their better judgment, Catholics tended to be much more sceptical and streetwise. They gave Patten only a cautious welcome, despite Protestant dismay, knowing that what was important was the legislation that emerged, rather than the proposals.

Within a generation, there could be a democratic majority demanding either a much closer association with the Republic of Ireland or formal unity, although Dublin is noticeably cool to the idea. British governments seem to have accepted this prospect and are laying the foundations for a smooth handover, if and when it happens, while they do nothing overtly to encourage it. The big question is whether the Protestant population as a whole is willing or resigned enough to accept such a political process, arising out of the peace process, or will stage some last-ditch resistance. If an inclusive power-sharing executive could prove its effectiveness, and if the new North-South bodies could slowly expand to obscure the political and economic border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Protestants might yet accept a new role in Ireland and the United Kingdom, prior to a form of joint authority or Irish unity. But if the new regime fails to deliver, there must be the risk of a temporary breakdown in the peace process, before international and economic pressures dictate that it be resumed.

The underlying problem will remain the same, finding a political dispensation that can satisfy two separate ethnic communities sharing so little common ground. Thinking Protestants know that change must come, and are ready to argue the case for continuing strong British ties within any all-Ireland power-sharing structures that might evolve from the GFA’s north-south bodies. But it is true that at present, before the shape of Northern Ireland in the new millennium is clearly defined, too many Protestants and Catholics still believe they can have peace without political sacrifice. Power-sharing governments with blocking mechanisms have a poor survival record in modern times - in Cyprus and Lebanon, for instance - and no one can be confident of the outcome when former terrorists are voted into positions where they must take difficult, non-partisan decisions. It could be that Northern Ireland’s split-identity problem has found a unique solution, in an all-inclusive coalition executive, operating without an effective opposition, or it could be that the new arrangements will usher in a period of great uncertainty, with paramilitary organisations wielding influence in government. If violence can be avoided in the long transition to a new Northern Ireland and some form of class politics eventually replaces the sterility of the unionist-nationalist conflict, the many architects of the peace process will have been fully vindicated. They opened doors that seemed to be permanently barred.


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