Have we just witnessed the final swan song of 100% Unionism?

Speaking at the Agreement 25 event held in Queen’s University in 2023, Senator George Mitchell, in a well-received and challenging speech, referred to those whose politics produce unbending, doctrinaire and uncompromising negotiating positions as the ‘100 per centers’.

It was clear in the context prevailing at the time that the finger of suspicion, in the mind of most of the audience, pointed to the Democratic Unionist Party.

It could have included the EU, Brexiteers and Remainers who played out a lengthy game of stand-off before the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA.

With grace periods and other concessionary provisions for Northern Ireland, no European politicians nor technocrats, zealous for a closer unity within an EU fearing contagion, could have been happy.

Perhaps they felt that in the long term, the present difficulties and contained resentment would be solved when Northern and Southern Ireland unified as one jurisdiction.

The interim was tolerable until 100% could be restored; within a short time frame, if Irish republicanism was to be believed.

Perhaps.

In April 2023, all the various parties were content to point the finger at the DUP and their 100% demands, as perceived.

DUP spokespersons in their public statement and speeches, on and off platforms then and since, did little to suggest accommodation.

Give us what we want or Stormont will not be restored did not sound like a willingness to compromise or, as the DUP leader has reiterated several times since agreeing the January deal to re-enter Stormont, “bank the gains and move forward on that basis.”

Many, who were there in 1998 at a number of meetings held by a UUP tearing itself apart over the BGFA and what flowed from it, will recall the late Lord Trimble make the same appeal to ‘no surrender members in the party.’

The current DUP leader and his immediate successor less one would have been there.

It is now clear from the deal which has been agreed that the DUP has not got everything it wanted if the bottom line was the removal of the Windsor Framework and the total removal of a trade barrier in the Irish Sea.

There have been important procedural changes pertaining to trade, regulation and constitutional sensitivities; others present as symbolic re-branding and semantic. However, there is an undeniable shift from what most Unionists judged a green-tinged and constitutionally irredentist post-Brexit arrangement skewed towards promoting the mis-named all-island economy through EU overreach.

It seemed that Europe, Washington and London were content to ride roughshod over these concerns as where the non-Unionist political parties.

Now they seem to have been partially assuaged although a lot is based on trust and Ministerial discretion.

However, there is ‘credit to bank.’

From the stance now adopted by the DUP it is clear that the strategy of the UUP in 1998 to bank the gains and work from there was the right approach; as it is now.

As a bonus, the DUP does not have a Tony Blair pressing unionism ever more robustly as in the years after 1998 with an impassioned internal and external opposition intent on ‘smashing’ the Agreement.

It has taken time for some to realise that the days of unchallenged pro-Union politics are over; that they need to be shaped by what underpinned the 3 strands of BGFA – reconciliation, respect and collaboration..

Making Northern Ireland an inclusive community which can work for all in terms of wealth creation and distribution, employment, education, housing, health and well-being is the only principled option.

If Northern Ireland is to work for all, Unionism in all its various forms – cultural, economic social justice and civic participation- has to become more self-critically literate and strategic.

Unionist political leaders have to make the case for remaining within the United Kingdom and not assume that in governing Northern Ireland, unionism is always 100% right and can never be wrong.

RHI is a useful yardstick.

The reconciliatory words of the new First Minister and the Deputy First Minister promise much.

Less than 100% Unionism can, to use the words which the DUP Leader has deployed, future-proof Northern Ireland from fractious episodes by continuing on its chosen path; denied to Lord Trimble.

Now we need to consign, curry my yoghurt, acquiescing to bonfires which burn down homes and DUP MLAs grandstanding under offensive Parachute Regiment banners to the past.

Old customs to which some Unionist representatives have seemed hitherto umbilically attached have stood in the way of progress.

Northern Ireland cannot be the ’cold house’ to which Lord Trimble referred for other than Unionists in a pluralist community where binary politics are in decline.

It’s not much to ask and would give meaning to the inclusive aspirations being voiced.


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