The Marching Season

Whether Northern Ireland's Protestants will accept the recent Anglo-Irish Agreement will become apparent in the next few months  

Last November the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her Irish counterpart, Garret FitzGerald, met at Hillsborough Castle, in Northern Ireland, to conclude the business they had embarked on eighteen months earlier—namely, crafting some sort of bilateral arrangements that would reduce the level of alienation among Catholics in Northern Ireland, undermine support for Sinn Fein (the political arm of the Irish Republican Army), and put constitutional politics back on track in Ulster. Over the protests of Protestant Unionists—diehard supporters of the union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain in its present form—FitzGerald and Thatcher affixed their signatures to an "Agreement between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom" that effectively gives Dublin a say in Northern Ireland's internal affairs. Within a week the Hillsborough Agreement was ratified by the Irish Parliament in Dublin. Within another week the British Parliament at Westminster overwhelmingly followed suit. Protestants in Northern Ireland, however, have vowed to undermine the treaty—by whatever means they can.

The Hillsborough Agreement is succinct, its brevity almost concealing the craftsmanship that went into its wording. First, both governments affirmed that any change in the status of Northern Ireland (for example, incorporation by the Republic of Ireland) would come about only with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Both governments recognized that at present the Protestant (mainly Unionist) majority wished for no change in its status. And both governments promised to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to secure a united Ireland if in the future a majority of the people in Northern Ireland were clearly to wish for and formally to consent to the establishment of a united Ireland.

Second, the two governments agreed to set up an Intergovernmental Conference that would be jointly chaired by the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, currently Tom King, and a "Permanent Irish Ministerial Representative"—at present the minister for foreign affairs, Peter Barry. The functions of the conference would pertain both to Northern Ireland and to relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, specifically with regard to political matters, security arrangements, the administration of justice, and the promotion of cross-border cooperation. A provision specifying that "determined efforts shall be made through the Conference to resolve any differences"—a binding legal obligation with precedent in international law—ensures that the Irish government's role is more than merely consultative (even though less than fully executive).

Third, both London and Dublin supported the idea of a "devolved" government, to deal with a range of matters within Northern Ireland, that would command "widespread acceptance throughout the community." Since 1972, when Britain abolished the Northern Ireland government amid renewed sectarian strife, the six counties have been ruled directly from London; "devolution" refers to the re-establishment of a provincial governing authority. Should this occur, Dublin would nevertheless retain a say in certain areas affecting the interests of the Catholic minority (such as security arrangements and human rights). If devolution does not come to pass, then Dublin will continue to have a say in all matters that affect Catholics.

Whether or not the Hillsborough Agreement works, there can be no doubt of its historic significance. For the first time since 1920, when the partition of Ireland occurred, the British government explicitly recognizes that the Republic of Ireland has at least a limited role to play in the governance of Northern Ireland. This constitutes an implicit acknowledgment that the partition of Ireland has been, in political and social terms, a failure. For its part, the Irish government explicitly accepts the fact that Northern Ireland will remain within the United Kingdom as long as that is the wish of a majority of the people there. This amounts to an implicit acknowledgment that unification is an aspiration, not an inevitability. Hillsborough therefore represents a quid pro quo of sorts. In exchange for the Irish government's recognition that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland have the right to say no to a united Ireland, the British government was prepared to give the Irish government some influence in Northern Ireland in areas relating to the aspirations, interests, and identity of the Catholic minority. It was prepared to accept, in other words, what has come to be called an Irish Dimension (meaning, at the very least, an institutional link between Belfast and Dublin) in Ulster's future.

Ultimately, of course, the Hillsborough Agreement will be judged on the extent to which it achieves its avowed aims—that is, the extent to which it promotes peace and stability in Northern Ireland (where some 16,000 British troops are now stationed, and where political violence has claimed more than 2,500 lives during the past decade and a half) and helps to reconcile the Protestant and Catholic communities (with their divergent but legitimate interests and traditions). The notion that these aims can be achieved, however, was the product of explicit and implicit assumptions on the part of both Dublin and London—assumptions that are, perhaps, not entirely tenable.

The explicit assumption was that if the alienation in the Catholic community in Northern Ireland—the result most immediately of the British government's security policies and its administration of the judicial system—went beyond a certain point, the adverse consequences for constitutional politics on the island as a whole would be not only serious but potentially irreversible. Garret FitzGerald made this point to Margaret Thatcher when they met at Chequers, the British Prime Minister's country residence, in November of 1983. The meeting came a few months after the ultra-nationalist Sinn Fein party, which advocates the unification of Ireland by force, if necessary, secured 43 percent of the Catholic vote in Northern Ireland in the British general elections. (Northern Ireland is represented at Westminster by seventeen members of Parliament.) The implicit assumption was that even if there were initial widespread opposition in the Protestant community to whatever agreement the two governments came to, it would subside when the benefits of such an agreement, in the form of a lower level of violence and the formal international guarantee of the Unionists' constitutional position, became apparent to a majority of Protestants.

In sum, according to the logic that prevailed, the existing level of alienation in the Catholic community was such as to require new political arrangements in the short run to alleviate it, whereas the possible level of alienation in the Protestant community was thought to be containable in the long run.

The problem here, of course, is with the nature of the alienation itself. In Northern Ireland it takes many forms. Most obvious is the alienation between Catholics and Protestants—a conflict whose roots lie in England's deliberate introduction of Protestant colonists to Ireland's northeastern counties during the early seventeenth century. (The "plantation" took place because Ulster was the most rebellious of Ireland's provinces; ironically, thanks to the plantation, it still is.) However, within the Catholic community itself there is alienation between supporters of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (the moderate voice of constitutional nationalism) and supporters of Sinn Fein (the extremist voice of unconstitutional nationalism). Similarly, within the Protestant community there are divisions—patched over, if only temporarily, since Hillsborough—between supporters of the Official Unionist Party (who want above all else to maintain the union with Britain) and supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (who want above all else not to become part of an all-Ireland state). In addition, both Catholics and Protestants, albeit to somewhat differing degrees, are alienated from the institutions of government. And both communities, albeit again to somewhat differing degrees, are alienated from their respective mentor states: the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.

Unfortunately, even if new political arrangements successfully address Catholic concerns and even if support for Sinn Fein begins to diminish, this is no guarantee of peace, stability, or a reduced level of alienation between Catholics and Protestants. On the contrary, it is quite possible that reforms will have an effect opposite the one intended. Reforms in the judiciary, in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland's police force, which is now almost exclusively Protestant), and in the Ulster Defence Regiment (a British Army unit recruited exclusively in Northern Ireland and which is also almost exclusively Protestant) may indeed wean Nationalist votes away from Sinn Fein, but there is no reason to believe that this will result in a decrease in the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose campaign of violence to end the British presence in Ireland is now in its seventeenth year. Already Northern Protestants see themselves as the victims of a calculatedly cold-blooded campaign of genocide conducted by the IRA. If the IRA is able to maintain its campaign of violence at the current level, the very real possibility is that each new killing of a member of the Constabulary or the Defence Regiment will strengthen the conviction of the Protestants that reforms only facilitate and encourage the IRA death machine.

If the number of Defence Regiment and Constabulary personnel who are killed does not fall, then the resulting alienation of the Protestants could paralyze the functioning of the Intergovernmental Conference. For on the one hand, the conference would be faced with the imperative of moving slowly in the area of reform in order to placate the Protestants, while on the other hand, it would continue to be faced with the imperative of moving quickly in order to shore up whatever support it had won in the Catholic community. These dual imperatives—the simultaneous needs to pull back and push forward—would lead to stalemate and inevitable breakdown.

The IRA's potential role as spoiler is the crucial difference between the Protestant campaign in 1974 to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement—an experiment in Protestant-Catholic powersharing that fell apart in six months—and the current campaign to wreck the Hillsborough Agreement. In 1974 the IRA by and large kept a low profile; Unionist agitation, especially the province-wide strike backed by Protestant paramilitary organizations, was primarily responsible for bringing down Sunningdale. (The paramilitary organizations have since the early 1970s been chiefly responsible for the sectarian murder of Catholics.) Today, however, the IRA is not counting on the Protestants alone to destroy the Hillsborough Agreement. In fact, the more successful the IRA is in showing that it can strike at will (which it did in Armagh at precisely one minute past midnight on New Year's Day), the more it will encourage Protestant Unionists to make Northern Ireland ungovernable—which is to say, the more it will encourage Protestants to do the work of the IRA. It is a pathetic irony of the conflict: Protestants vowing to make Northern Ireland ungovernable in order to maintain the union with Great Britain, the IRA vowing to make Northern Ireland ungovernable in order to break the union with Great Britain.

A second factor that will determine the fate of the Hillsborough Agreement is the final form of the Unionist response. To date the response has been predictable. The two most basic fears of the Protestants—that they will somehow be outmaneuvered by the Irish Republic and that they will be betrayed by the British—are reinforced by the perception that the Hillsborough Agreement was forged behind their backs. Many Protestants believe that Northern Ireland's Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which speaks for moderate Catholics who desire affiliation with the Republic of Ireland, not only was kept informed of the proceedings but also had a veto over the final terms of the agreement. And, they believe, the party has a veto with regard to the nature of a devolved government.

Insecurity and the fear it breeds are, of course, permanent parts of the local Protestant mentality. The Protestant colonizations of northeastern Ireland in the early seventeenth century were partial. At all times the new settlers lived in scattered enclaves and under precarious circumstances. Surrounded by a dispossessed and hostile native Catholic population, they were always vulnerable to attack. Initially the Protestants feared being overrun and massacred by the Catholic majority. Then came the fear of what would happen if the Act of Union of 1801 were ever repealed. Later it was the fear of Home Rule—that is, rule from Dublin, though in the context of London's sovereignty, of a semi-autonomous but predominantly Catholic all-Ireland political entity. Finally, ever since independence was achieved by twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties, in 1921, the Unionists have feared being abandoned by the British—or sold out by their own.

Indeed, Protestant fears are ubiquitous. They encapsulate the entire Protestant experience in Ulster. Deeply rooted, pervasive, impervious to the passage of time, they seem almost genetically encoded—even necessary for the survival of the species. In moments of crisis, therefore, when the future threatens, Protestants resort to the strategies of the past. Thus Ulster must "fight" to maintain its position in the Union, as it was prepared to do in 1912 and again in 1974. In each instance, the Protestants believe, only the threat of rebellion stayed Britain's hand. And thus in 1986 the Unionists raise once more the threat of rebellion—no matter that their constitutional position within the United Kingdom is now guaranteed by formal international treaty.

In the Unionist perspective, the one element of the Hillsborough Agreement that counts is the Intergovernmental Conference. The conference has a permanent secretariat, based in Belfast, comprising both Irish and British civil servants. It confirms the Unionists' worst fear: the South inching its way in. The conference, therefore, is viewed not as a small cooperative gesture but as a coalition government in embryo. In the Unionists' view, the language in the agreement requiring "determined efforts ... to resolve differences" means that Dublin will get its way 50 percent of the time. The conference is seen, therefore, as the first step toward an all-Ireland state. Reconciliation is simply a code word for unification.

To appreciate the range of possible Unionist responses to Hillsborough one must keep several things in mind. First, history suggests that the Unionists may not seem to act in their own best interests. The intensity of their fear that any association with the South will lead to the ineluctable absorption of the Protestant people of Ulster into an all-Ireland state is a powerful stimulus to irrational behavior. The Unionists' decision last December to resign the fifteen seats they held in the Westminster Parliament and to recontest them did not have the consequences they had predicted. In special elections held last January, which the Unionists insisted on calling a referendum on the agreement, they lost one seat to the Social Democratic and Labour Party (which, significantly, outpolled Sinn Fein in the constituencies that both parties contested) and failed to get the mandate they had sought.

Another thing to bear in mind is that in the past the Unionists' threats of irrational action—fighting Britain to remain part of Britain—proved successful. The threat of irrational action is a perfectly rational tactic when it achieves its purpose. The purpose in the present circumstances is to bring down the Hillsborough Agreement. It is, therefore, of little consequence to Protestants at the moment if their actions to achieve this end also weaken their union with Great Britain. They have a simple objective, not a grand strategic design. The latter, they believe, will somehow emerge once the former is achieved.

The time frame for action will last through July and August—"the marching season," when, Unionists traditionally believe, they can save their souls with bunting. Various scenarios are possible. The present pervasive Unionist opposition to the Hillsborough Agreement conceals but does not eliminate the basic divisions in unionism. Moreover, the Protestant will as opposed to the Protestant threat to fight has never actually been tested.

To begin with, the Unionists could go back to Westminster and present the "verdict" of the Ulster people to the British government. They might then put forward alternative proposals, which would be unacceptable to the government if the Protestants set out as preconditions for discussion—as they almost certainly would—the dismantling of the Intergovernmental Conference. Moreover, any roundtable conference would have to include the government of the Irish Republic, because under the terms of the treaty there are no circumstances under which the Hillsborough Agreement can simply be abandoned without discussion. In short, the Protestants cannot both dictate the agenda and limit the participants.

At this point they have five options. First, they can engage in unconstitutional but nonviolent actions, which for the moment would allow them to hold the high ground relative to the Protestant paramilitary organizations. (A one-day general strike last March, called for by both Unionist parties, brought the province to a virtual standstill. However, the widespread street violence and intimidation that accompanied the strike led James Molyneaux, the leader of the Official Unionist Party, to promise that his party would not participate in any future strike actions. This was the first crack in what had been up to that point a unified Unionist front, because Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, would make no such promise.) Second, they can withdraw from government—from Westminster, the Northern Ireland Assembly, regional bodies such as health and education boards, and local councils—or they can take nonviolent action to disrupt the institutions of government. Third, they can threaten a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). Fourth, they can actually make a UDI and set up a provisional government of their own. Fifth, they can negotiate for a devolved government within the context of the Hillsborough Agreement.

The logic of withdrawal is impeccably simple. If, the Protestants argue, half a million Catholics effectively withdrew their consent from the forms of government offered them, and if the consequence of this was the instability and violence that led eventually to the Hillsborough Agreement, then should not the consequence of one million Protestants' effectively withdrawing their consent be substantially more instability and violence, thus requiring a renegotiation of the Hillsborough Agreement? Already Ulster Clubs are springing up across Northern Ireland to organize withdrawal of consent if the politicians fail to do so.

However, if the constitutional parties of unionism withdraw from government, they will be either wittingly or unwittingly conceding the ground to the Protestant paramilitary organizations, and this will lead to an increasing number of sectarian murders on both sides of the religious and political divide. Moreover, in the event that Protestant paramilitarists mount a bombing campaign in the Republic, the impact on public opinion there might suggest that the Republic's commitment to the Hillsborough Agreement is inversely related to its having to bear any of the consequences.

The third option—the threat of a UDI—is a rational action. Unionists believe that the pressure on the British government at this point would be sufficient to make the Intergovernmental Conference incapable of achieving its stated purposes, that the threat of a UDI to Britain's national and strategic interests would outweigh whatever advantages Britain might achieve from strict adherence to the agreement, and that Mrs. Thatcher, sufficiently distracted by problems at home, would simply lose interest in making the agreement work.

Ironically, if the Unionists pursue this campaign of resistance, their solidarity and commitment will prove the more determined in the face of a successful IRA military campaign. In this sense, both protagonists need to feed upon each other if they are to bring down the Hillsborough Agreement. It is likely that the past will repeat itself in new forms: the Unionists will split into those who will continue to support constitutional means to bring about change and those who will not. In other words, there will appear a Sinn Fein on the Unionist side to match the existing Sinn Fein on the Nationalist side.

An actual UDI—the fourth option—would, of course, be irrational, since there are no circumstances under which it could succeed. The British government would have to put it down, and the Unionists would add one more enemy—the British—to their list. But the possibility of a UDI should not be dismissed simply because it is irrational. To the Unionists, the actions that will destroy the agreement are what matters, not the further consequences of those actions once the agreement is destroyed.

The ultimate question, then, is rather simple: Would the Unionists prefer to have nothing at all, a wasteland of an Ulster, an intractable war of sectarianism, a loss of identity, and an end to their Britishness, if they can't have things their own way? Would they prefer this, even if a fifth option—a weak power-sharing arrangement and a stripped-down Intergovernmental Conference—were potentially available through negotiation?

The fact is that any arrangement that the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and either of the Unionist parties would be prepared to enter into would be construed by the governments in both Dublin and London as having widespread community acceptance. The SDLP can now afford to be generous in defining what is acceptable regarding the form that an autonomous provincial government should take. For if the Unionists were to abuse the devolution system agreed to, especially one that was not structured along traditional power-sharing lines, the SDLP could simply withdraw, in which case the functions that had been devolved would once again come under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Conference. Thus the incentive to Unionists: adhere to the principles of devolution agreed to and the powers of the conference are thereby diminished; reject them or abuse them and the powers of the conference remain strong.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking is entirely rational and must compete with the idea that going over the brink a little doesn't mean going all the way. One way or another, by summer's end the Protestants will have made a decision.