Editorial from Irish Political Review, April 2008

Paisley And "British Government"

The London Times advised Ulster Unionists a few weeks ago not to rock the Sinn Fein boat too hard. The Establishment of the British state wants peace in Limbo. It doesn't want old sores scratched or new sores inflicted. Northern Ireland has been cobbled together again, and all concerned must put on their best parlour manners to make sure that the cobbling holds.

It is not a democratic state, but it is a condition of the 1998 Agreement that it should be pretended that it is a democratic state. But the pretence must be restrained.

The modern democracy is a party system of government in which there is all-out conflict between the party in Office and the party in Opposition. This system of conflict does not wreck the state because usually there is hardly anything at issue between the conflicting parties except the mere holding of Office. The parties occupy substantially the same ground and therefore they can do each other down without restraint without destroying the state. If there were fundamental matters at issue between them, so that a change of government caused a change of social system, what we call democracy would not work.

Northern Ireland is neither a democracy nor a state.

It is a variant of the British state, excluded by Britain from the political system of the state.

Within this Northern Ireland system the ground of party division is not of a kind with the party division in the rest of the state. It is a communal division signified by religion, not a policy division relating to the government of the state.

In the old Stormont system, where the democratic principle of majority rule applied, the Protestant community had to return a Unionist majority at every 6 County election in order to remain under the British state. A 'swing' towards the Nationalist Party which gave it a majority at Stormont would have led to a transference of the region from the UK to the Republic. A subsequent reverse swing would have taken it back to the UK.

It was no more possible to have the 6 Counties nipping to and fro between the two states than it was to have the British social system changing to and fro between capitalism and socialism as fundamentally antagonistic Labour and Tory Parties took turns at winning elections.

Northern Ireland politics is no more based on policy difference today than it was before 1972. But the old system in which, under a semblance of democracy, there was a permanent party of government and permanent party of opposition has been replaced with a system which allows for no opposition but has all parties in the government.

This system was stabilised last year when Sinn Fein and the DUP became the major parties in their respective communities and Paisley agreed to operate the system with Sinn Fein.

The self-proclaimed 'moderate' or 'centre' parties, who had failed to make anything resembling a settlement, then applied themselves to unsettling the Sinn Fein/DUP settlement, and they egged on discontented elements within Paisley's party who wanted to keep on paying off old scores.

The good Lord Fitt used to say that there is no such thing as a good Unionist or a liberal Unionist, only a Unionist. Adjectives don't matter. A Unionist is a Unionist is Unionist when the matter in question is Irish nationalism. The only difference is one of manner. And, as there is no accounting for taste, there may be some who prefer Trimble's manner to Paisley's.

The campaign against Paisley was fed from two opposite sources—the extreme extremists in the Unionist movement and the moderate extremists in the other camp. The extremist moderates had made Paisley their bogeyman for 40 years—see the Irish Times, any date. Of course it was awful that he should be the Unionist who made a settlement. But what they really resented was that he let in Sinn Fein. Bad though he was, he had a good side—he would die in the last ditch, rather than let Sinn Fein off the hook. And then, as soon as he became the dominant Unionist representative, he let Sinn Fein off the hook.

The logic of the sniping at Paisley from the backwoods of extreme moderation is that intransigent Unionism should confront intransigent anti-Partitionism in a political wasteland. The Times did not want a return to that state of affairs. Apparently the Irish Times did.

Paisley was interviewed by BBC journalist Andrew Marr. As reported in the Irish News of March 10th, he said he had smashed Sinn Fein by driving it into politics:

"I did smash them because I took away their main plank. Their main plank was that they would not recognise the British government. Now they are in part of the British government."

Marr did not press the matter. He knows very well that Northern Ireland is a place set apart. If he did not see it for himself we pressed the information on him in the lobbying of British party conferences in the 1980s and early 1990s. He indicated then that he did not wish to know that, which meant of course that he did know it but did not intend to let the knowledge interfere with his career. BBC journalists are carefully blinkered ideologues with disciplined eyes.

Paisley too knows that Northern Ireland is a place set apart. About 25 years ago he adopted the policy of bringing it into the British system. He was talked out out of it by some powerful figures behind the scenes, and reverted from 'integration' to the Protestant/Catholic squabbling, which is the ground of Northern Ireland politics.

Since he once had the daring to propose that the North of Ireland should be integrated with Britain, he knows that Ulster is not British but is only connected with Britain in certain vital respects.

In 1985, when John Hume gained his first great triumph, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, we responded by launching the CEC (Campaign for Equal Citizenship), which gathered considerable support for a while. Hume got very angry with us, but he reckoned that we would fail because the Unionists would submit to British pressure, would pull away from the campaign to democratise Ulster within the politics of the state, and would withdraw to the enclave that Whitehall put them into in 1921. They backed down in 1921, he said, and agreed to operate a pseudo-state outside British politics, and he predicted that they would once again submit. And he was right. The submission was made publicly by Frank Millar (wee Frankie), Secretary of the Unionist Party, who took a Unionist Party delegation to Downing Street, was told authoritatively by Mrs. Thatcher that Northern Ireland would not be let into the British system of politics and government, gave an angry interview with the press when he came out, and went home and obeyed.

The Protestant community was disabled in its political life by what happened in those few years in the mid-1980s, and the Catholic community was invigorated. We are almost tempted to say that a kind of revolution happened during the past twenty years which transferred Northern Ireland from Limbo to Purgatory.

Ed Moloney has published a book called Paisley: From Demagogue To Democrat. It is a bewildering title. Demagoguery is the characteristic mode of democratic discourse. Just listen to Question Time in either Westminster or the Dail.

Lord Bew reviewed it in the Irish Times (15 March) under the title Paisley And The Provos: Inextricably Linked? Why the coy question mark? Paisley and the Provos are the current representatives of the Protestant and Catholic communities in the Northern Ireland system in which they were irresponsibly thrown together by the rulers of the British state and deprived of the political medium which would have enabled them to be anything other than intimate antagonists.

The Irish Times (Tom Fewer) marked the 90th anniversary of the death of John Redmond during the month (25th March). It told us that "After Parnell's affair with Katherine O'Shea the Irish Parliamentary Party all but disintegrated because of internal bickering and the influence of the Catholic Church". In fact it was the English Protestant Nonconformist influence in the Liberal Party that made an issue of the evidence given in the O'Shea divorce case and demanded the resignation of Parnell as a condition of maintaining the Home Rule alliance. The affair with Kitty O'Shea—an English upper class lady—was well known in the Party long before the divorce action, and neither the Party nor the Catholic Bishops made anything of it in the first instance. The split in the Party came about when Gladstone said he would have to drop Home Rule if Parnell continued as leader. William O'Brien suggested that Parnell should stand down as leader in Parliament for the time being, while continuing Party Chairman. Parnell refused to consider any compromise. He demanded blind obedience from the Party, and a breaking of the Home Rule alliance with the Liberals. When he failed to get this he set about breaking the Party in the country, and indulging in revolutionary posturing, with Redmond as his loyal apostle.

Then the Irish Times says: "Some credit for the Land act of 1903 must be given to Redmond". In fact that Party under Redmond's leadership tried to persuade the tenant-farmers that the Land Act was a Landlord/Tory swindle to rob them of their savings. This led to a split in the Party. The supporters of the Act, led by William O'Brien (who was also its architect, along with Ulster Protestant tenant righter T.W. Russell), led its implementation against Redmondite opposition, and contested the 1910 Election in opposition to the Redmondites.

Then the Irish Times slips us into the Great War, never telling us what it was about, but saying that "Asquith… and Redmond… were anything but warmongers, but they were shocked by the atrocities committed by the Germans in Belgium". But of course Asquith declared war, with Redmond's support, before the Germans had any opportunity to commit atrocities.


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