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Terrorism and Unionist inner fighting await returning MLAs

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 16:17

Stormont Parliamentary Building. Photo: Wknight94.

By Dr John Coulter, a political columnist with the Irish Daily Star and Tribune magazine

Cross-party unity will be the Holy Grail Stormont MLAs must achieve if the Province is to weather the looming financial storm caused by the severe cuts to be imposed by the Westminster Coalition Government.

However, as the 108 Assembly members return from their summer recess this month, the reality is that their minds may well be pre-occupied with keeping a security lid on the growing dissident republican terror threat as well as the impact of a new Ulster Unionist leader.

On 22 September, hundreds of members of the UUP’s ruling Ulster Unionist Council will meet in Belfast to elect a successor to the General Election-battered Sir Reg Empey.

The party is at its lowest ebb since the UUC was formed in 1905 and the primary task of the new leader will be to prepare the UUP for a life-saving political merger.

Given the UUP’s low ranking in the Unionist family, the debate over Empey’s replacement could initially be dismissed as a storm in an irrelevant teacup.

But the outcome of 22 September will effectively decide who becomes First Minister in next May’s expected Assembly General Election. While political gossip has several names in the UUP hat, the hard truth is that it is a two-horse race between the party’s pluralist liberal wing, and its traditional Orange right-wing.

The liberal champion is Lagan Valley Assembly member Basil McCrea, the UUP’s education spokesman and member of the Policing Board. His rival is fellow MLA Tom Elliott from Fermanagh and South Tyrone and a leading official in the exclusively Protestant Orange Order.

McCrea has the higher media profile and enjoys the support of the party’s youth wing, the Young Unionists, and a considerable section of the UUC grassroots. Elliott commands the blessing of the party hierarchy and the Protestant Loyal Orders. An Elliott victory could see a revitalisation of the once powerful West Ulster Unionist Council, a pressure group which dominated the party for decades.

Nationalists and republicans want a McCrea victory because he would steer the party in the direction of its original reformer, former Northern Ireland Prime Minister, the late Terence O’Neill.

But of more benefit to republicans is that the McCrea camp does not favour a merger with First Minister Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionists. Sinn Fein especially would prefer to see the Unionist family at loggerheads, splitting the pro-Union vote, and boosting its chances of getting current deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness elected as First Minister.

A McCrea-led UUP would be more likely to merge with the centrist Alliance Party than the DUP. An election pact between the DUP and UUP is an almost certain outcome of an Elliott victory. This would not be republicans’ preferred result.

Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the largest designation – Unionist or Nationalist – laid claim to the coveted First Minister’s post. But under the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, the First Minister goes to the largest single party in the Assembly.

If May’s Westminster General Election result is taken as a benchmark, Unionist infighting, Protestant voter apathy and nationalist tactical polling will guarantee a Sinn Fein victory.

Unlike the UUP, the DUP is fully behind the notion of Unionist unity leading ultimately to a single agreed Unionist Party. However, the DUP has its own internal problems.

There is still the rivalry between the more liberal Robinson camp, and religious fundamentalist supporters loyal to former leader Ian Paisley Senior, now Lord Bannside. The Christian evangelicals have regrouped around Paisley’s son, Ian Junior, who held his father’s North Antrim Commons seat, comfortably ‘seeing off’ the challenge posed by ex-DUP MEP Jim Allister of the anti-power sharing Traditional Unionist Voice.

But the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition Executive still has to sell the hard-hitting cuts package to the Northern community. As the cuts bite – as they surely will in 2011 – they will place tremendous strains on this Unionist/Republican partnership, potentially sparking a pre-election ‘blame game’ between the two parties.

In this scenario, the UUP may wish to see a return of the original partnership with the moderate Catholic SDLP which ran the first power-sharing Executive when UUP leader David Trimble, now Tory peer Lord Trimble, was First Minister.

Whoever wins the 22 September UUP race, a further realignment within the pro-Union community is a certainty. Clearly, too, the impact of the upsurge in the dissident republican terror campaign must not be underestimated.

Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein chief negotiator McGuinness has been adamant in his claims both the Dublin and London Governments have been holding secret talks with dissident republicans – allegations hotly denied by both Governments.

The various dissident republican terror gangs are becoming more sophisticated in their weaponry and more frequent in their attacks – a double-edged tactic aimed at embarrassing Sinn Fein’s support for the police, and goading the hard Right in loyalism into reprisals.

But like their 20th century republican forerunners, the 21st century dissidents will have to come to the negotiating table at some point. To achieve this, Dublin and London has a number of major hurdles to clear.

Firstly, do they give concessions to dissident republicans which risks mainstream republicanism’s participation in the peace process? After all, McGuinness has publicly branded such dissidents as “traitors”.

At what point do the two Governments involve the Northern Ireland Assembly in a negotiation process with dissident republicans? Could such an involvement add new vigour to the politically mute anti-power sharing lobby within Unionism?

However, the major problem remains that dissident republicans are not united in one single movement. Dissident republicanism comprises several separate terror groups, some with no political wings. In hard negotiating terms, precisely who does London and Dublin talk to?