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Sunday 8 June 2003

After all this time, it is still 'them' and 'us'

DAVID Trimble is in trouble with his party again, so, as usual, all those who want concessions to Gerry Adams so he can avoid a republican split are denouncing Trimble for not selling the Agreement hard enough to unionists. 
UNIONISTS: UUP leader David Trimble and an Orange parade.

The truth is we hate Trimble, Jeffrey Donaldson, Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and unionists in general. Not Ulster Prods, just unionists. (When I say "we", I don't include myself, but in my youth, before I bothered to get to know them and cast off my tribal shackles, I hated them too.) Any Ulster Prod who converts to nationalism is clasped to our tribal bosom: any nationalist who converts to unionism is reviled and cast out. We do not honour Conor Cruise O'Brien, the greatest and most cosmopolitan Irish intellectual of the 20th century, for he wounded our national psyche by crossing over the divide. This being a family newspaper, I won't tell you how personages in the Department of Foreign Affairs have been heard to refer to me because I made friends among unionists and try to explain their point of view.

A recent Irish Times poll provided a surreal snapshot of how our hatred blinds us. The object was to find out if voters agreed with the Irish and British governments that "recent statements by Sinn Fein and the IRA do not state clearly and unambiguously that the IRA will end all paramilitary activities, including punishment beatings, targetings, the procurement of weapons and so on". Only 31 per cent of the respondents believed the IRA had made its intentions clear. So whom did our thoughtful respondents blame for the subsequent breakdown in negotiations? Sinn Fein/IRA? Well, er, no. The main culprits, naturally, were the Ulster unionists, who stood accused by 35 per cent. 

Throw in the 6 per cent who blamed the DUP and the 15 per cent who blamed the British (perceived to have taken the unionist side) and you've got a figure of 56 per cent of Irish voters who blamed unionists because the IRA refused to promise to stop beating and shooting people; only 15 per cent pointed the finger at Sinn Fein/IRA. 

Aren't we gas? 

When asked what they've got against unionists, nationalists talk of Orange parades and past discrimination and all that sort of thing. The smarter ones - remembering that we're all supposed to be putting the past behind us and that unionists have more to forgive than the Provos - call them negative, backward-looking and anti-peace. And they have a point. Many unionists undoubtedly have a siege mentality and all the negative characteristics that go with that: but then, as one put it succinctly, "We'd get rid of our siege mentality if they'd lift the f*****g siege". 

The depressing truth is that despite the promise of the Agreement, the Provos haven't lifted the siege. Even when they were inside the citadel and part of its government, they couldn't bring themselves to disband the encircled army. So now many of those unionists who voted for the Agreement see it as a con trick and they're blaming Trimble. 

I happen to like many people from the unionist tradition because, inter alia, I appreciate their decency, honesty, industry, courage, straight talking and wit. My belief that they desperately want the peace they are accused of opposing was borne out by another recent illuminating poll - this time in the Belfast Telegraph. It showed that 57 per cent of unionists would share power with Sinn Fein if the IRA promised never to use weapons again: if the IRA decommissioned and disbanded, the figure rose to 76 per cent. 

If unionists had any interest in selling a positive image to the Irish Republic, they'd be publicising those figures big-time. But don't hold your breath in anticipation of a unionist charm offensive. They don't do charm: they distrust it. And they are in too defeatist a frame of mind to think positively. At our core, we hate unionists because we think they hate and despise us. The truth is they're afraid of us: they think that we would see a hand of friendship as a symbol of surrender to encroaching nationalism. 

Being a constructive friend to unionism is a deeply frustrating occupation, but someone has to do it. A political researcher called Mick Fealty, who teaches Irish as well as editing www.sluggerotoole.com - a brilliant website dealing with Northern Ireland - has just written A Long Peace? The Future of Unionism in Northern Ireland, in conjunction with David Steven, a dispassionate policy analyst, and Trevor Ringland, once an Irish rugby international, and now a Belfast solicitor who makes the unionist case with passion, articulacy and - yes - charm. 

The pamphlet is a terrific read: the trio are as sympathetic to the unionist community as they are unsparing in their criticisms of its tendency to negativity, passivity and paranoia and are spot-on in their suggestions as to how it could use its brains and punch its weight for the greater good. Download the pamphlet from the website: it might make you think rather than hate.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards