Signs of re-alignment in the unionist camp

by David Granville

THE 5,000 remaining British troops still based in Northern Ireland following the formal winding up of Operation Banner may be safely tucked up in barracks for the time being, doing whatever the army does when it's not out and about honing its skills as a colonial force of occupation or, alternatively, depending upon your point of view, protecting the world from dangerous terrorists.

It may be all smiles and be-suited Ulster fry breakfast engagements to tempt business to invest in the underfunded and conflict-stunted infrastructure and economy of the six counties and joint appeals for a reduction in corporation tax.

It may even be that, as one recent opinion poll has shown that the unlikely, and not so long ago unthinkable, partnership that is the first and deputy first ministers, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, has won favour with a surprising number of supporters of both parties. So far, so good.

But then again, apart from demonstrating that the pair are capable of putting on a credible double act and offering a degree of hope that Paisley's new-found political pragmatism will continue to hold up when the going gets tough, the reality is that the assembly hasn't done that much yet.

Many of the really contentious issues around the transfer of policing and justice powers, health, education, local government reform and, let's not forget, equality are yet to come fully to the fore.

However, it's only a matter of time before they do and with discussions about the budget looming it could it be that Paisley and McGuinness will find it more difficult to muster the same degree of jollity and bonhomie in the months ahead. There are also signs of potential trouble brewing in the unionist and loyalists camp, on a number of fronts.

News that Fianna Fail is to join Sinn Fein in organising on both sides of the British-imposed border, with speculation rife about what this means for the future of the SDLP, appears to have been treated with a remarkable degree of equanimity by the DUP leader. The same cannot be said of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Reg Empey, who had pronounced the development to be, at best, premature and, at worst, destabilising.

Renewed interest in the ranks of the Irish Labour Party for a similar all-Ireland initiative has also been in evidence. The party already has members in the north, based around the Northern Ireland Labour Forum, which recently launched a campaign with a view to contesting seats at the next local elections.

Despite Paisley's calm reaction, it's likely that such developments will have added to the concerns of unionists of all flavours, but particularly those of an anti-agreement bent.

Indeed, there has been much speculation in recent weeks concerning the creation of a new anti-agreement party based around former DUP MEP Jim Allister and a handful of former local DUP councillors disillusioned at the party's power-sharing arrangement with Sinn Fein.

But while Allister and co. may well deliver a new party, it seems doubtful whether it will succeed in garnering sufficient support to make it a significant force.

Nevertheless, this development along with the fact that anti-agreement elements within the Free Presbyterian Church have effectively forced the DUP leader to stand down as moderator, and news of talks between the UUP and the DUP over a voting pact at the next UK general election - and possibly a merger, are a clear indication that a much predicted re-alignment within unionism is now underway.

It also supports what the historian and political activist C. Desmond Greaves and others involved in the birth of the civil-rights movement concluded in the early 1960s: that the raison d'etre of unionism, which was firmly based upon privilege and upon maintaining a position of unalloyed supremacy over the nationalist population in the north, would be critically undermined and destabilised by implementation of fundamental civil rights.

One particularly dangerous aspect of that instability in the current phase concerns the fragmentation of various loyalists groupings, particularly the Ulster Defence Association, which, like all other loyalist paramilitary groups, has so far refused to disarm.

Various factions of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the largest of the loyalist paramilitary groups, have clashed in recent weeks and the prospect of another full-blown, and inevitably bloody, loyalist feud now looms large. This has led to the assembly's social development minister Margaret Richie threatening to withdraw £1.2 million funding for a 'conflict transformation initiative' in loyalist areas if a start is not made on the decommissioning of loyalist weapons by 9 October.

The funding, which many view as little more than a bribe, was agreed under direct rule, prior to the resumption of the power-sharing assembly. It remains to be seen whether the various fragments of the UDA, or indeed any of the loyalist groups, will be inclined to comply with the minister's deadline. To date, with the exception of a purely token gesture made by the Loyalist Volunteer Force a few years back, no loyalist weapons have been verifiably put out of use.

Despite the divisions, and possibly even because of the divisions, loyalists paramilitary groups, which are known to be heavily infiltrated by state agents of one sort or another, continue to pose a potent threat - and not only to just one another.

Reports that the editor of the Belfast-based Andersonstown News and a number of prominent Sinn Fein activists and politicians have recently received death threats from the Red Hand Defenders - a cover name for elements within the UDA and LVF - is extremely worrying in view of past experience.

Such threats must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Those operating under this particular flag of convenience have proved themselves to be deadly and ruthless killers in the past. The murder of solicitor Rosemary Nelson was claimed by the Red Hand Defenders as was that of the Sunday World journalist Martin O'Hagan. O'Hagan, who had spent much of his journalistic career exposing the criminal actions of loyalist gangs and paid for his efforts with his life, was murdered in September 2001 after receiving death threats through the post.

Although journalists believe they know the names of eight of the men involved in O'Hagan's murder, no one has ever been charged. Colleagues are convinced that the reason for this is that a number of the hit squad were working as police or army informers.

Following pressure from his trade union, the National Union of Journalists, the Northern Ireland police ombudsman's office is now investigating these allegations and the original police investigation.

Which brings this column round, once again, to the issue of collusion.

It really is time for government ministers, the police, the army and the intelligence services to come clean and make themselves accountable for the misdeeds of the past and, just as importantly, ensure that six years down the line there's no need for yet another investigation into how state-paid operatives came to be involved in violence and murder. To do everything in ones power to prevent the truth from coming out is simply no longer an option and as great a threat to the current political process as any flat-earth unionist rejectionist or any of the still active paramilitary groupings, loyalist or republican.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-10-05 13:59:37.
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