The balance of power in the Ulster Unionist Party has shifted towards the ‘No’ faction by the return in the Westminster by-election in South Antrim of the DUP’s, evangelical Free Presbyterian singing preacher McCrea as its Member of parliament and the Bull Frog roar of Ian Paisley is heard across the land.
The usual solace in defeat, counting up the votes of all the other candidates to show that a majority had voted against the winner, doesn’t work to discount the 822 margin by which he won. This because David Burnside had, before being selected as candidate by the Ulster Unionist Party, changed from being a supporter of the Good Friday Agreement to opposing it. The DUP, therefore, is claiming that Unionist ‘no’ supporters are in a much greater majority than the 822 vote margin indicates.
Whether the position might be reversed come the general election next year is problematical and it would be tempting for Wee Willy Hague to fish for votes in troubled waters if the Good Friday Agreement is stymied into Limbo or falls apart in the next few months.
The Ulster Unionists’ annual conference due the weekend 7 - 9 October is a critical point for David Trimble as the factions in his party line up on policy issues. They seem to be very much opposed, a view which Trimble himself supports, to the necessary changes in the police service, envisaged in the legislation to implement certain recommendations in the Patten Report, especially changing its name. They claim that this fails to recognise the sacrifices and dedication of the officers of the RUC during the conflict of the last thirty years.
A call is being made for a meeting of the Unionist Council which has the overriding control over policy to be called, which could oust the present leader and the Westminster MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, who walked out of the discussions which set up the Belfast Agreement in 1998, is shaping up to contest the leadership. He is calling for Trimble and other party ministers in the Executive to withdraw from working with Sinn Féin until progress is made on decommissioning which would effectively suspend the Good Friday Accord once again if they did so.
Like the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly the Northern Ireland Assembly has been in recess during which time, apart from the pressures within the Ulster Unionist Party, news from the area has mainly been about the conflict between Loyalist paramilitaries.
Ministers have been involved in meetings of the cross-border institutions and Trimble has had discussions with the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. He is said to have asked for his support in pressing for further arms bunkers inspections by the international monitors; he is urgently seeking some public or witnessed by observers decommissioning which if achieved would put the wind back in his sails.
A gesture like this from Republican paramilitaries would indeed strengthen those in both communities who support the Good Friday Agreement, for it would show ‘that politics work’. Then, if the Executive Ministers in their respective departments were seen to be making progress and the Assembly constructively debating the issues, momentum might be resumed.
As yet, however, although the ceasefires still hold, they seem very reluctant to enter more fully into democratic engagement by a significant further move towards removing the threat inherent in the possession of arms and es.
It will not help towards inclusiveness and parity of steam if by luck of moves in this direction that those in the majority community who support the Belfast Agreement (1998) have their position undermined by the hardline fundamentalist diehard Paisleyite DUP.
At the British Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, made a statement on police reform legislation and emphasised that strong measures would be used to deal with paramilitaries, including dissident Republicans suspected of launching a missile at the MI6 building in London, and Mafia-like protection and extortion rackets operating in Northern Ireland.
There were no resolutions on Northern Ireland during the week, although David Trimble, who was also expected to attend the Tory conference in Bournemouth (which ended on Thursday 5 October), spoke at fringe meetings. Whilst the Labour Party is clearly behind the Belfast Agreement and the other arrangements flowing from it, there are sure to be dissident voices, perhaps high-ranking speakers at the Tory conference, as William Hague searches for another bandwaggon to mount.
Filtering out from the Bloody Sunday Inquiry are stories about tapes which are claimed to have recordings of voices of the soldiers as they participated in the shootings which left 13 civilians dead on the day (in 1971). The final report when it is published will reveal the truth and lay the matter finally to rest without affecting the progress towards peace and reconciliation.
The investigation into the assassination of the lawyers Pat Finnucane and Rosemary Nelson and allegations that security forces were involved in colluding with Loyalist paramilitaries in their murder is another very sensitive issue.
I recall that Conservative Douglas Hogg MP, who was Minister in the Home Office just prior to Finnucane’s death, made a speech alleging that Nationalist lawyers were linked closely with the IRA.
I wrote him a letter immediately severely criticising his speech, suggesting openly to him that he bore some responsibility in fingering Pat Finnucane for the assassins.
He replied refuting my suggestion and when I wrote back indicating that I could not accept his denials, he sent me a card saying he had nothing further to say.
I have concerns that matters will hang fire for the next six months as some Unionists might consider that a change of government, a danger highlighted by opinion polls, would improve their chances to claw back some of the progress already made to a fairer society.
The possibility of a change of government is a serious threat to a continuation of the long struggle to peace and progress in Northern Ireland, with the immature Hague and the gungho approach. Anyone with an understanding of history should draw back from supporting the return to power of his rightwing backward-heading party.