Bonfire a dispiriting reflection of unionism

Posted By: July 26, 2017

Fionnuala O’ Connor. Irish News. Belfast. Tuesday, July 25, 2017

There is a link to be made, dispiriting but instructive, between this year’s Twelfth and the 20th-anniversary last week of the IRA’s second ceasefire.

General peaceableness, offensive bonfires – we should be grateful? The DUP representatives for Sandy Row are the perfect example of unionist backwardness. The behavior of the youthful Emma Little-Pengelly and Christopher Stalford discourages any hopes that they signal a better future. Their refusal to confront lawlessness is in line with sorry tradition.

It is clear now that the period since 1997 has been an anti-climax to an anti-climax. The 1994 ceasefire had more spontaneous excitement about it than 1997 but that faded fast. The IRA undertaking to give up their violence could never have brought unmixed delight. There was and still is too much grief, a huge sense of futility, as well as internal Republican dread that their ‘war’ was for nothing, that their leaders were fooled or worse, had sold out.

The big undertow, the major underminer, came from unionism. Bizarrely, it seemed unionists could not stomach an IRA ceasefire. Jim Molyneaux in 1994 famously defined it as ‘destabilising’, which set the tone. As speculation grew about the IRA intention loyalist paramilitaries upped their killing. Then they dragged out the likelihood of their own ceasefire.

But giving up the guns and Semtex was always going to be painfully slow. Weaponry was all that Republicans had left to barter once the juggernaut of violence halted. If unionists had shown the least attempt to recognize that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were turning around a big, awkward vessel – well, if unionists had shown that, they would not have been the unionists of that time, or indeed at this time.

The trust that existed in 1994 between the British and Republicans evaporated. What if the official British response had not been to quibble about terms, demand ‘clarification’, require speedy delivery of more than a simple ‘cessation’? In one reading John Major did his best, in another was simply in hock to his own right wing and to unionist votes to bolster his small majority. He met loyalists before Republicans.

Bad borrowed worse. The IRA bombed Canary Wharf after months of stagnation. It needed Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide to produce the second try but this time Adams and McGuinness failed to hook in all the significant players.

The spores of Omagh 1998 had been scattered and sown. Dissidents will rattle on for years, decreasingly coherent, though a fledgling political development may be just about visible.

But there is no development inside unionism, as the Eleventh Night in Sandy Row demonstrated. Someone from every party in Belfast Council turned up at the meeting of residents scared and angered by the bonfire that threatened their flats – except the party with the biggest Sandy Row vote, the leaders of northern unionism, the DUP. A supposed celebration of ‘religious and civil liberty’ endangered and damaged homes and two of the DUP’s most prominent young figures ducked and split hairs rather than criticize the paramilitary-backed bonfire-builders.

It has now been clear for several years that the DUP is iffy about the UVF, wedded to the UDA. But the UDA is not a peace-processed paramilitary outfit, as the IRA became. Loyalist paramilitaries will soak up academic interest and any grants going but their behavior shows they have gone backward, not forwards.

After a dirty war, it was always going to be a dirty peace, in Allison Morris’s apt tag. Here we are, twenty years on, in a lop-sided situation that one side refuses to tackle, indeed which their actions set in concrete.

Of the figures centrally involved in 1997, Adams alone is still in play. In the last year, he has lost the person who by Republican accounts was crucial in carrying the bulk of their organization towards making peace. McGuinness kept the political frontage in place by dint of personality and war-won clout; what he faced defeated him.

Unionism still paints Adams as a destabiliser, but it was unionism that ousted the leader who tried to share power in 1974 – with the SDLP. Decades later David Trimble (a tiny cog in 1974) struggled to be civil to Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan. Sinn Féin, Trimble said, needed to be ‘house-trained’. A decade later Arlene Foster called SF but also SDLP ministers ‘rogues and renegades.’

No matter what Adams sees as good for republicanism, and Ireland, where in the north is the partner to progress? The last twenty years have seen political toddlers lock themselves into a long sulk.