Paisley and Adams: the ghosts of politics past

The new deal in Northern Ireland is built on the decommissioning of political debate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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The deal reached by Ian Paisley, the once-firebrand leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Gerry Adams, president of Paisley’s most hated foe, Sinn Fein, has been greeted as ‘historic’.

‘Dr No says yes’, reported Channel 4 News, as Paisley – famous, or infamous, for shouting ‘Ulster Says No!’, ‘No surrender to the IRA!’ and various other slogans with the word ‘no’ in them – agreed to work side-by-side with Sinn Fein in a power-sharing Assembly that will kick off on 8 May. Many seem pleasantly shocked that the political stick-in-the-mud Paisley has ‘put aside’ his hostility (towards both Sinn Fein and Catholics in general) in the name of moving Northern Ireland forward. Some even imagine that the picture of Paisley and Adams sitting side-by-side will help to usher in world peace. ‘With luck [the photo] could inspire other divided but war-weary communities to embrace the compromises of politics’, gushed Michael White in the Guardian (1).

Behind all this premature speculation, all the widespread talk of history having been made, the fact is that the latest deal is built on the rubble of politics in Northern Ireland. In recent years, it is not only the IRA’s weapons that have been decommissioned – so has politics itself, as genuine debate has been buried and put verifiably beyond use. Today’s peace process, and its latest expression in the new Paisley/Adams Assembly, is premised on the disarming of political debate. History hasn’t been made in Northern Ireland; it has been frozen.

Both Paisley and Adams have been congratulated for putting their political differences to one side in the interests of the ‘greater good’: Paisley is praised for rising above his ‘Biblical not-an-inch Unionism’ and Adams for refusing to allow his Irish nationalist desires for a United Ireland to stand in the way of finding a peace deal (2). In reality, both the political traditions of Unionism as represented by Paisley and Irish nationalism as fronted by Adams died long ago. Paisley and Adams did not ‘put aside’ their political beliefs – they simply no longer have any. They met face-to-face less as the representatives of great opposing movements than as the ghosts of politics past, the physical remnants of long-gone traditions.

Many have wondered out loud what possessed Paisley to sign up to power-sharing with Adams, a man he has been denouncing as an IRA commander and spokesman for the past 20 years. ‘Perhaps’, ruminates one commentator, ‘somewhere within that roaring chest there is a whisper of conscience after all’; another wonders if old age (Paisley is 80) has tempered the Orange loudmouth’s mindset (3). Searching for explanations for Paisley’s latest move in his moral make-up or date of birth, even in his ‘roaring chest’, is typical of a British commentariat that has long loved to hate Paisley and naively holds him responsible for every injustice and stalemate in Northern Ireland. In the real world, Paisley’s sit-in with Adams confirms the end of old-style Unionism as a political force.

Traditional Unionism has been in decline since the Troubles in Northern Ireland exploded in 1969. A combination of British initiatives aimed at defeating the IRA and pacifying the Catholic-nationalist community, and shifts in the balance of forces in Northern Ireland, has had the effect of undercutting Unionism – both the traditional variety represented by the Ulster Unionist Party and the more cranky variety represented by Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. For all the claims that Unionists like Paisley have effectively been holding British officials hostage, forcing them to stay in Northern Ireland against their will, in truth the British have been more than willing to stuff the Unionists in the name of strengthening their domination of Northern Ireland.

In 1972, at the height of the conflict, the British government abolished Stormont, the parliament through which Unionists had governed Northern Ireland on Britain’s behalf since 1922, and instituted direct British rule instead. That had a devastating impact on the old Unionist ruling class. A decade later, in 1985, the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, a document which gave the Irish government a largely token advisory role in the governing of Northern Ireland. Unionist politicians, in particular Paisley, viewed it as a ‘gross betrayal’; Paisley said the Unionist people would ‘never, never, never, never’ accept the Agreement (again with the negatives). The Downing Street Declaration of 1993, published by then British PM John Major and Irish PM Albert Reynolds, declared that Britain had no ‘selfish, strategic or economic interest’ in remaining in Northern Ireland, but would nonetheless stay until a majority of people desired otherwise (4). Even though this guaranteed Britain’s continued presence in Northern Ireland – which was founded in the six north-eastern counties of Ireland precisely to ensure a Protestant-Unionist majority – Unionist leaders balked at Britain’s declared lack of ‘interest’. ‘They’re just not interested in us’, came the complaint (5).

These initiatives show that the British elite has had few qualms about riding roughshod over the Unionists in order to find new ways to justify and repackage its rule in Northern Ireland. The very fact that Paisley’s politics has been based on saying ‘No!’ to political developments shows that he has not driven events in Northern Ireland but rather has tried to slow or stunt the pace of change. British-led developments served to weaken Unionism and cause division and disarray within its camps. As then senior Unionist statesman Robert McCartney wrote in 1995, after 20 years of deals that tended to sideline old Unionists and as the ‘peace process’ was taking hold: ‘[There is] an ongoing deterioration in the quality of ideas, energy and representation within Unionism to the extent that it is now reaching a stage of terminal stagnation with a dying and ageing membership.’ (6)

The absence of the IRA threat, and of Irish nationalist demands more broadly, has driven the final nail into the coffin of traditional Unionism. The IRA ceasefire of 1994 robbed Unionism of its defining justification, its raison d’etre, which was to defend the Union between Northern Ireland and Britain from its enemies. Without those enemies, what was the point of Unionism? Paisley’s big, brash, unapologetic brand of Democratic Unionism was hit particularly hard by this development. Those who hold Paisley responsible for everything forget that he founded the DUP in 1971, two years into the Troubles, in response to the outbreak of conflict. That is why his rallying cry has been ‘No surrender to the IRA!’ – his was a reactive, defensive, negative politics, based on standing up to the threat posed by the IRA to the Union between Northern Ireland and Britain. Without that threat, Paisley has, in the words of one observer, been reduced to ‘inventing disaster so that he can oppose it’ (7).

The demise of traditional Unionism is captured best in the spectacular collapse of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) over the past five to 10 years. For most of the twentieth century, the UUP was the establishment party in Northern Ireland, intimately tied to every major institution in society: business, the military, the civil service, the church, the Orange Order. In the 2005 General Election, UUP leader David Trimble lost his seat to Paisley’s DUP, and the UUP’s showing in Westminster fell from five seats to a face-reddening one; meanwhile, the DUP increased its representation from six seats to nine.

Many claimed that the increased vote for Paisley’s DUP represented a return to ‘extremism’ in Northern Ireland. In fact, as shown by Paisley’s grinning photo-call with Adams yesterday, his policies did not differ very much from the UUP’s: both parties believe that power-sharing with nationalists is the way forward. Rather, the DUP vote is an expression of discontent and alienation, a feeling of marginalisation amongst Unionists in Northern Ireland. People voted for the DUP, not because it said very much that was different to the UUP, but rather because it more clearly articulated that sense of discontent and grievance.

That is how Paisley arrived at the talks table with Adams – not as a result of a change of heart or the onset of senility, but as a result of massive shifts over the past 20 to 30 years. It is the emptying out of Unionism that means even a firebrand like Paisley now puts all his eggs in the power-sharing basket, and it was the collapse of the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party that allowed Paisley to win enough votes to call some of the shots in the setting up of the Assembly. Both his preparedness to talk to Adams and the strength of his mandate are the products, somewhat ironically, of the collapse of Unionism. Paisley enters the new Assembly as the shadow, rather than the voice, of Unionism.

At the same time, Sinn Fein has renounced its political beliefs, too. Indeed, even though much of the response to the latest developments has focused on Paisley’s big change in position, Sinn Fein has, if anything, given up even more than the DUP. The Assembly will guarantee that Northern Ireland remains a formal part of the United Kingdom, a state of affairs that Sinn Fein and the IRA fought against for much of the period between 1969 and 1994. Sinn Fein now accepts that Northern Ireland is part of Britain until such a time that a majority in Northern Ireland decides otherwise. In short, it has abandoned its historic claim that only the people of Ireland as a whole can decide their affairs, in favour of adapting to the fatalistic ‘politics of birth rates’, whereby the people of Ireland will just have to wait until Catholics outbreed Protestants in the north before they can enjoy their democratic rights in an independent sovereign state.

Irish nationalism is also a shadow of its former self. A key shift in Sinn Fein policy over the past 15 years and more has been its redefinition of the republican movement’s goal. Instead of pursuing the objective of Irish independence, republican strategists argued for ‘parity of esteem’ with Unionists, for equal treatment and respect within the state of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the IRA once claimed to be the ‘legitimate government’ of Ireland, the true heirs of the 1916 declaration of an Irish Republic. Now, as amply demonstrated by Adams’ enthusiastic signing up for power-sharing with the DUP, they accept their position as just another political party playing a role in the ‘peace process’. Like Paisley, Adams enters the new Assembly denuded of his earlier political beliefs, as effectively a politics-free politician who can be called upon to manage Northern Ireland’s general affairs.

The ‘peace process’ is built not so much on the compromise of Unionists and nationalists, as on their defeat and degradation. Few people, and certainly not I, feel any nostalgia for the passing of the old political blocs that dominated Northern Ireland for so long. The problem today is that the peace process, far from trying to give birth to anything new, makes a virtue of this death of politics, of the end of politics and debate. It institutionalises both the lack of political vision in Northern Ireland and its lingering sectarian tensions.

The various Assemblies that have existed in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 have been based on the ‘politics of consensus’ – that is, on the idea that every measure must have the backing of Unionists, nationalists and all the other tiny cross-community parties, too. This is profoundly anti-democratic, and it elevates political stalemate over Northern Ireland’s future into a positive, where anything that causes strife or disagreement is pushed to one side while everything that wins a nod of approval from all sides is pushed through. The Assemblies have also institutionalised sectarian divisions. They have demanded that ‘at their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity – nationalist, Unionist or other – for the purpose of measuring cross-community support in Assembly votes’ (8). This freezes Northern Ireland’s different identities in law, which has had the effect of further sectarianising politics and life in general across the statelet (see A sectarian peace, by Brendan O’Neill).

Where republican parties such as Sinn Fein once had the noble goal of uniting ‘Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter’, they now rush to support an Assembly that requires the separate identification of Catholic, Protestant and ‘other’. The failure to overcome divisions in Northern Ireland is transformed into a positive ‘celebration of cultural identity’ under the peace process; the failure to resolve political clashes one way or another has given rise to a supine politics of consensus where disagreement just gets buried; and the failure by any of the parties, or the British and Irish governments, to come up with a new vision for Northern Ireland means the old representatives of Unionism and nationalism get to stalk the political landscape like toothless dinosaurs.

There was little ‘historic’ about the agreement between Paisley and Adams. Rather it is the removal of history from the agenda, the denigration of politics and democratic debate, that has allowed this unholy marriage between a former loyalist firebrand and a one-time republican activist.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) A message for the world, Guardian, 27 March 2007

(2) Blair may finally have seduced Paisley – but that still leaves Northern Ireland as divided as ever, Independent, 24 March 2007

(3) Blair may finally have seduced Paisley – but that still leaves Northern Ireland as divided as ever, Independent, 24 March 2007

(4) Downing Street Declaration, Wikipedia

(5) Downing Street Declaration, Wikipedia

(6) Robert McCartney, Belfast Newsletter, 7 March 1995

(7) See ‘Divided Loyalists’, Brendan O’Neill, Living Marxism, June 1995

(8) See A sectarian peace, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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