The Blanket


A journal of protest & dissent




Go Surrender? Unionism and Decommissioning
By Sam Gilchrist


Way back in 1986, the New Society columnist Martyn Harris described Unionist political strategy in the bluntest of terms; it required little rigorous analysis for it amounted to no more than the pursuit of communal superiority. It was "simplicity itself. It is about keeping out the Taigs." Whilst the political landscape has changed radically since the "Ulster says No" campaigning of the 1980s, this notion of an ingrained inability on the part of Unionism to embrace change, and to countenance the inclusion of Nationalists and Republicans in government, can still bubble and percolate within the Republican analysis. Unionist stalling on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been presented as "not wanting to have a fenian about the place" and the dismissive overriding of Sinn Féin's mandate; truculent phrases about unhousetrained Republicans have done nothing to dispel this view of an obscurantist Unionism. The decommissioning imperative of Unionism is seen as a red herring, to draw attention from the Unionist resistance to change, and also provides a useful stick with which to chastise Sinn Féin whenever the political need arises. Republicans seem bewildered at Unionist foot dragging when they can so readily point to the massive ideological concessions that they have themselves made. Why does Unionism need proof of republican bona fides when the IRA has maintained a ceasefire for five and a half of the last seven years? When Sinn Féin has signed up to the principle of consent and sits in a partitionist assembly? Sinn Féin likes the institutions so much that there was even the suggestion that British ministers could be slotted into Unionist seats when the latter evacuate their Executive positions.

This is a long way from the traditional Provisional analysis. Republicans argue that their concessions to the process have been sweeping. It was in March 1998 that Gerry Adams emphasized that his bottom line was the disbandment of the RUC; the retention of Articles two and three; powerful, stand alone cross border institutions and a form of all-Ireland police and courts. A month later this bottom line had slipped right off the page and into nothingness.

What then is the Unionist problem? It's true that for anti-Agreement Unionists, decommissioning has an instrumental value rather than a strategic one. It is an easy stick with which to beat the peace process. But for those who voted 'yes', it has enormous significance. Disarmament would fulfil several functions for Unionists. Firstly, it would fill an ethical hole in the institutions. In twenty five years, the Provisionals killed seventeen hundred people in an attempt to lever Unionists out of the UK. Now their political wing sits in government with a private army that is (mostly) intact. To Unionists, this does not sit well with notions of peace and good government, and in this they can point to Fianna Fail's attitude to sharing power with Sinn Féin, as a clear indicator of how societies at peace relate to secret armies.

Perhaps the greatest value decommissioning has for unionism though, is an emotional and symbolic one. For them, decommissioning would bring a sense of balance to the peace process. Nationalist gains seem much more tangible; there are ministerial feet under tables, there is reform of the RUC, and cross border institutions have sprung up in a variety of areas. All these innovations are essentially invulnerable as long as the peace process chugs along at even a modest pace.

In contrast, the gains which Unionism can point to seem mostly in the hands of the Provisionals themselves; the increasing constitutionalism of Sinn Féin and the snapping of the cutting edge of 'armed struggle' can theoretically be changed by votes in the ard fheis and the Army Council. In practical terms, this is obviously highly unlikely, but Unionism requires something concrete to prove that the war is over. The scrap metal of decommissioned arms would provide ballast useful in settling Unionism within the fluctuating waters of the process. The fear that Republicanism might return to war has been present within Unionism, but declined over the years as Sinn Féin reaped the electoral dividends of peace. But it is a niggling fear nonetheless, and was partially jump started by the arrest of three Republicans alleged to have been helping to train FARC guerrillas. To Unionism, this is proof positive that the Provisionals are keeping their options open and do not want to sever links to guns, money, and smuggling contacts. What really stuck in the Unionist craw about the FARC revelations was the sheer arrogance of it all. Sinn Féin spent years glad handing US officials, schmoozing with corporate America, and rattling tins in front of Irish American groups yet still took the chance on collaborating with a group which the State Department refers to as Marxist narco terrorists. If Sinn Féin is willing to treat its new friends in such a cavalier fashion, how can its word be trusted with its traditional enemies, runs the unionist argument. Republicans too have pointed to Unionist hypocrisy in relation to Loyalist paramilitaries; the latter have always been on the fringes of the decommissioning spotlight. In the recent past, Unionists might have countered that loyalists weren't going to be administrating in government and therefore the focus had to be on Republicanism.

The campaign of pipe bombing and sectarian assassination by strands within Loyalism has changed that profoundly. The actions of the UDA are being seen as an attempt to simply chestbeat in front of the UVF and provoke republicans into retaliation. Unionism is unsettled by this; it doesn't want to see lampposts turned into battle standards as loyalists mark their spheres of influence, and it doesn't want to see retaliation, which will mean, well, dead prods. Loyalist dissidents are seen to be playing with the peace for short term gain and to embarrass the Provos. If this means that decommissioning will be pushed further away, then that strand within Loyalism might have to watch out for itself. The 'specifying'of the LVF/UFF ceasefire met with a nod of approval within Unionism. But then the UDA already knew that. Who could believe that the failure of the UDP to contest elections as a political entity was the result of clerical error?

Unionism needs to be loaded with the deadweight of weaponry to anchor itself in the process - Republicans may see Unionist fixation with guns as a destabilizing fetish, but they might ask themselves if they aren't holding on to them for similar symbolic, and emotional reasons. Maybe the ballast can be shared.

Sam Gilchrist is a Unionist commentator



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The Blanket




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A Journal of Dissent

Under the Foot of the Mountain: Brendan Hughes

Author's Choice: Rogelio Alonso, A Just War?

Interview: Marian Price

Books: Soul Wars

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Unionism and Decommissioning

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Writing This Issue

Latest News & Views

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The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002

Republican Voices