by John McAnulty (Socialist Democracy, Belfast)

When the leader of Ulster Unionism, David Trimble, is defeated at the polls by over 5000 votes in favour of a hymn-singing local meat plant owner and subsequently resigns as UUP leader we can be sure that something historic is happening. The swing of 45% effected by Jeffrey Donaldson in Lisburn confirms that feeling. The rout of the Ulster Unionist Party at the polls is finalised when all but one of their Westminster seats fall and Ian Paisley’s DUP towers over them as the majority force in unionism, with 9 Westminster seats. The council results bring no relief, with a 5% fall in the UUP vote and a DUP increase of over 8%. These are significant events drawing decisively to a close the period structured around the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. They are events that demand explanation.

There are plenty to be had:

  1. It’s all the fault of the Provos. The swing to the right in unionism was caused by allegations of Provo involvement in the Northern Bank heist and the murder of Robert McCartney.
  2. Extremism, in the form of the DUP, has overcome the mechanisms of moderation set up by the Good Friday agreement and defeated the voice of moderation and support in the form of Trimble.
  3. Polarisation has similarly overcome the Good Friday mechanisms to elect the two extremes.
  4. All is not lost. It is the extremists who can do business and finally bring the British settlement into full-blown life.

All of the above are false, designed to excuse and explain away the total failure of British attempts to stabilise its Irish colony.

It’s simply madness to believe that the Unionists have suddenly awoken to the fact that there is some connection between Sinn Fein and the IRA and that the IRA are still in existence and active. The fact is that the original settlement simply involved the IRA ceasing attacks on British forces, while other Provo activities were tolerated. During the process’s repeated crises, attempts by unionists to bring the Good Friday deal to the ground have led to British attempts to assuage the right with further demands on the Provisional republicans. Even when the Provos capitulated, first to the decommissioning of weapons and now to the demand that the IRA disband, it is argued that it is Provo intransigence, rather than unionist reaction, that brought about the collapse of the agreement.

The mistaken idea in the ‘triumph of extremism’ model is that Trimble is a moderate. He is in fact a figure of the far right, which is how he became UUP leader in the first place. He argued, mistakenly, that the unionists had to operate within the Good Friday structures in order to defeat the agreement. The British would punish unionism if it boycotted the process. His policy of smashing up the agreement from inside worked brilliantly and pushed the Good Friday deal so far to the right that it eventually collapsed, but British capitulation to unionist demands ultimately convinced the unionist electorate that the direct rejection offered by Paisley was the correct strategy.

Another mistaken idea was that the Good Friday strategy was a mechanism for combating sectarianism. It was in fact a way of modifying and finding new institutional expression for sectarianism in what was already a sectarian state. The new institutions and methods of thought gave advantage to those most openly and forcefully defending the sectarian privileges of ‘their’ community while excluding any political organisations that did not define themselves in sectarian terms. This process fed the transformation of Sinn Fein into a party basing itself on an aggressive defence of Catholic rights and aided the shift from the Official Unionists to the Paisleyites within unionism and thus the final burial of the Good Friday process itself.

Will the DUP strike a deal?

It is argued in the aftermath of the election that the Paisleyite victory was a good thing, in that it allowed the extremists to strike a deal that would be immune to attack from the right. The grounds for such an argument should be examined in detail. In reality the republicans and Paisleyites do not reflect each other in the patronising ‘two tribes’ analysis so beloved of British journalism. The republicans are engaged in an increasingly desperate attempt to strike a deal, and have in reality ditched all the aspects of the historic republican programme, at the moment preparing to disband the IRA in the hope that this will be enough to placate their enemies. They fought the election on the platform that Paisley would do a deal on his own terms – that is move the whole process light-years to the right – and that Sinn Fein would be willing to accommodate them as long as power-sharing, meaning Sinn Fein bums on government seats, was part of the deal.

The Paisleyites, on the other hand, have been constantly hardening their position. They have dropped hints aplenty that they want to share power, and there is a general consensus that a deal was within reach in November, but this is simply wishful thinking – not only did the Paisleyites call for the humiliation of Sinn Fein – they never entered into direct negotiations with the party! There is not the slightest hint from the two governments that Paisley will be blamed or punished for his intransigence – in fact the right-wing programme he put forward in November is now being advanced by both London and Dublin. In the meantime direct colonial rule remains – a default position where the unionists can rely on British patronage and take all the time in the world responding to the pleas of Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein argue that a deal will come – because of the corruption of the Paisleyites! They argue that the DUP are lying about their opposition to Sinn Fein in government and are anxious for political power. This argument tells us more about the political culture in Sinn Fein that equates politics with lying than about the DUP. It is no doubt true that the professional politicians in theDUP are corrupt. Who would know better than Sinn Fein, who do corrupt deals with them in the councils on a day-to-day basis? However the DUP stood as the party best placed to keep Sinn Fein out of power, and the avalanche of votes for this position rules any deal out of order for the foreseeable future.

There is one other possibility – advanced so far by the DUP alone – that their victory represents the reunification of the unionist class alliance of the past and, leading this alliance, they can go forward to re-establish the old Stormont colonial parliament where unionism reigned supreme and the nationalist minority bowed the knee. The DUP have been quite open in their advocacy of majority rule, and we can expect their demands in this direction to become more strident in the months ahead.

The re-composition of the unionist coalition

To go further we have to understand the component parts of the old unionist all-class alliance and the class relationships around May’s Westminster and local elections.

The original unionist alliance was composed of four parts:

  • First there were the ‘British Unionists’, a small section of the capitalist class who kept their distance from the endemic bigotry that fuelled unionism and wanted to include Catholic unionists in a modernising project. These are now represented by the Alliance Party.
  • Then there was Unionism itself. A party led by local capitalism, organising around sectarian hatred via the vehicle of Orangeism but also very aware of the need to consider the British interest and the need to stand alongside broader imperialist interests. The UUP’s historic links with the Orange Order and the Tory Party made this strategy concrete.
  • Loyalism, organised around the DUP, represented the petty-bourgeoisie, the foremen, small shopkeepers, professional workers who organised sectarian structures on the ground and were in the sharpest competition with their Catholic counterparts. Their bigotry and religious fundamentalism is mixed with a local parochial nationalism that dreams of being free of British interference.
  • Finally, the Unionist workers. A number of attempts were made to build ‘unionist labour’ parties but the contradictions between the actual class interest of the workers and the subservience of these groups to unionism were too strong. Traditionally these workers were organised by the Unionist Party, with the Orange Order playing a key mobilising role. (Given the extensive ‘socialist’ butt-kissing of loyalist paramilitaries, it’s worth recording yet again that they did not represent the working class.)

So, if we exclude the Alliance Party, Paisley can claim to have united unionism. However there are important qualifications to be made. This alliance is tactical rather than strategic. Paisley was right and Trimble wrong. Simple opposition was enough to face down any agreement. Paisley did not defeat the Unionist Party. The Official Unionists, including Trimble, opposed any deal and at least half the party always opposed Trimble. Leading elements, including entire branches and former leaders such as Lord Molyneaux, simply switched over to the DUP. This sharp right turn has taken place a number of times, and always occurs when it becomes obvious that the British will support unionism, even when the unionists reject the latest attempt to stabilise their corrupt little Bantustan. Unionism has not been defeated. What it has done is to take charge with a very definite aim – to build a new deal much closer to the old Stormont with a clear recognition of their sectarian supremacy. The germs of such a deal are present in unionist proposals for a super county council on which the nationalists would chair some committees, or for a voluntary coalition whereby the SDLP would sign up in advance to a subservient role.

Contradictions facing republicans

Sinn Fein, although they made some gains, did not gain anything like the same leverage over the traditional nationalist bourgeoisie in the form of the SDLP. They won one extra seat and increased 2.6% of the Westminster vote and 18 seats and 2.7% of the vote in the councils. Rather than become the monolithic party of nationalism, they face sharp hostility from the Dublin government, demanding disbanding of the IRA and immediate capitulation to unionist demands.

Irish capital understands very well that the new situation does not involve human rights or democracy. Their demands are stability through continued British rule and partition and a share (though not an equal share) of political power in the Northern statelet. This was demonstrated during the election campaign by Dublin’s frantic agitation on behalf of its political instrument in the North, the SDLP. As a result the SDLP was able to retain its bedrock support, although the party still has no clear purpose beyond fronting for Dublin.

The period to come will be marked by endemic instability. Gerry Adams now has to organise the absolute and unconditional surrender of republicanism, unconditional support for the state and the RUC/PSNI police force and the disbandment of the IRA in conditions where it will be impossible to spin to the republican base that the Provos are moving forward and making gains. The Provos’ well established practice of surrendering with a swagger and declaring victory will not be viable any longer. Adams’ talk of ‘hard choices ahead’ merely recognises this fact.

Even if the republicans are written out, either because they successfully capitulate or because they fail to do so convincingly, at this point the tactical unity of unionism will start to disintegrate. At the end of the day, when the unionist bourgeoisie say they will do a deal with nationalism, they understand that some sort of strategic arrangement is necessary for long-term survival. When the DUP core say they are prepared to accept Catholics in government they are simply lying. It should be remembered that, during the Holy Cross attacks, the British government rushed to placate and bribe the loyalist attackers. Negotiations failed because the loyalists could not frame any demands, simply baying out their bigotry and hatred.

The British see no crisis. The main point is that the republican opposition is in a state of political collapse, assuring everyone that it supports the process that leaves Paisley on the edge of power. It is they who are desperate to return to government with the unionists and the British, having appointed the part-timer Peter Hain to leave the republicans stewing in their own juice.

Perhaps the strangest feature of this situation is the belief, stretching across the political spectrum, that something fundamental has changed in this bigoted reactionary movement of the far right, led by a man who has threatened a whole series of armed revolts to ensure Protestant supremacy. In the next period Britain, Dublin and the republican leadership will all be trying to conciliate this sectarian monster. The results of their conciliation will be bad news for northern nationalists and for the working class as a whole.