John Hume on the end of the Unionist veto in Ulster

In recent times in Ireland we have been reminded of a lot of anniversaries. Remembering the past is something of an obsession here. The future, discussing it or shaping it, doesn’t seem quite so popular. Decisions might have to be taken. Leadership might have to be given. Our attitude to the future is paralysed by our obsession with the past. Indeed I have often thought that our over-indulgence in the past is a reflection of a much deeper weakness – our lack of the confidence to stand on our own feet, in our own time, with the ideas of our time, facing the problems of our time.

It is, of course, the voices of our extremes which continually invoke the past under the guise not only of being its true but of being its only inheritors – the keepers of the holy grail – thus endowing themselves with a sanctity of purpose which justifies everything they say or do, no matter how horrific.

One of the ironies is that these extremes are in many ways mirror-images of one another. The lack of self-confidence exhibited in the arrogance of their rhetoric and actions is only one of the common actors. We see it again in the demand, and the need, of each side to hold all power in their own hands, in the anxiety to have political structures made in the image of one tradition. It is evident in the rejection of tolerance and the need for domination. It is visible in the abandonment of peaceful processes. It is proclaimed in attitudes that seek victory and not accommodation. It is trumpeted by those who are so unsure of their Irishness that they need to remind us of it constantly. Their eyes mist over with self-righteous emotion as they wave national flags – their cherished possession. They don’t seem to notice that the real level of their respect is measured by their painting the flag on kerbstones for everyone to trample upon.

The Unionist people have a long and strong tradition in Ireland. They have a rich Protestant heritage and a great pride in their tradition. They have pride in their service to the Crown, pride in their contribution to the United States, in their spirit of industry and achievement, in their work ethic and in their faith. Their special metttle is believed by many of them to be expressed in victories in battles long ago, battles regularly commemorated. But that pride is expressed in an archaic supremacism and in a desperate fear that they could not survive in accommodation with other traditions. They must live apart. Living apart may have been acceptable as long as their hold on power was underpinned by successive British goverments: but that is no longer the case.

The fundamental change that has taken place as a result of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is a change that is deeply and fully understood by every Unionist. What it means is that their exclusive hold on power has gone and is not coming back. The power of veto on British policy which they have always had, and which goes to the heart of our problem here, has gone and is not coming back. The loss is uncomfortable for their leaders, for while they held that privileged position they never had to be politicians or exercise the art of politics, which is the art of representing one’s own view while treating others with fairness.

For traditional Unionism in Northern Ireland, other points of view have never actually existed. To this day, as they boast about the proposals which they have placed before the British Government about the future of Northern Ireland – the future of us all – the insult which their behaviour represents doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. Not only have they not presented these proposals to those of us who represent other views – views which must be accommodated if we are to have a future: they haven’t even published them for the information of their own followers. They are still oligarchs. The faithful will line up when the drums beat. The other points of view, to which lip-service is publicly paid, don’t really count.

However painful and difficult for them, their loss is in fact very healthy – not only for them but for the whole community. Mrs Thatcher has done for Unionists what John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson did for the whites of Alabama in the Sixties. She has stripped them of ascendancy and privilege, and in so doing has done a service to us all – by placing us on a politically equal footing.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in