Not So Slippery Anymore

Anthony McIntyre 🔖 When I first heard of David Cook he was grabbing the headlines because he was the first non-unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast since partition. 

A pretty mundane event these days, but back in 1978 it seemed a radical departure from ‘the way things are done here so know your place.’ It broke the mould even if the mould quickly reset itself for another lot of years. 

Decades later I met David Cook at a book launch in Belfast and we discussed, in no serious depth, a range of issues. On the few occasions I have met with him since, they have all been at book launches, always a site where the widest range of ideas intersect either to clash or converge. On our first encounter he was completely at ease in the company of alternative opinions and different perspectives. We even digressed into atheism, evolution and Dawkins. There were no taboos with him. There was nothing about him to suggest he might be the blinkered type eager to seek clerical blessing and then set out upon his trusty steed to lead the charge in favour of creationism being peddled in the science class. I don’t know if, like me, he felt the concept of a divine, pulling strings from the celestial, was bunkum, but it is easy to see how he was the type of person best suited as the public face of mould-breaking back in the 1970s. 

In the mouldy old place that is Northern Irish politics people thinking outside the loop come like a breath of fresh air. They sketch. Depending on the width of the brush they use or the dexterity of their strokes, conveying accurately the political terrain that lies in front of them is an art rather than a science. For that reason their output is often easily dismissed. But to have that extra window to peer through as well as letting in some fresh air and enhancing light has a value all of its own. 

Some time after I first met him he sent me a copy of a paper he had published some years earlier prior to the Good Friday Agreement. Its title was Blocking The Slippery Slope, something many claim to devote their time to on what they allege is the black ice surface of the Northern Irish political terrain. The paper now published as a booklet was based on a speech he had given to a gathering of the South Belfast Association of the Alliance Party. Only 24 pages in length it is a quick read. Yet Cook managed to pack more vision into this slim line product than many writers manage to come up with after 24 years of voluminous scribbling. 

The argument made by Cook was summed up concisely in the subtitle: ‘Why Unionism should go for a North-South Institution with Limited Functions and Executive Powers.’ Reading this 12 years after it was first penned it was amusing to see how well honed the political antennae of the author were. In relation to republicanism as it then was he argued that probably most republicans ‘have come to the view ... that, subject to certain conditions, partition is going to have to be lived with.’ This came at a time when republican leaders were telling their followers that a united Ireland was just around the corner. Cook also drew attention to what ‘not very intelligent republicans’ failed to understand i.e. that Protestants would not be happy in a united Ireland even were there to be every protection imaginable under the sun for their religion. For Cook that was only half the story if even that. The rest was that Protestants saw themselves as British and wanted to remain under British rule. 

This type of thought should have a resonance today where in the midst of a phenomenon that Martin Amis once termed ‘stupefied incuriosity’ there can still be found suggestions that once this or that procedure or institution is tweaked the border which is only a line on the map can be buffed out by plenty of discourse about economic cooperation, following which Protestants will be willing to give up on Britain. No one curious enough to ask them? 

How even more delusional such suggestions look today than they did when David Cook was writing. Whether we like it or not the IRA campaign failed. The border is here to stay, perhaps longer than it might otherwise have were it not for the armed struggle. You can be as British in Belfast today as you can in Finchley. Cook got to the point when he wrote ‘there is not going to be a 32 county unitary state in anything like the near future, or possibly at all because there are not anything like enough people either in Northern Ireland or in the Republic who want that to happen.’ But even he must have been surprised at how much Sinn Fein expects the nationalist community to put up with so that some party officials can administer British rule as a matter of priority rather than opposing it. 

Nevertheless, despite the waste of it all, he is not as irascible as might be expected about republicanism, the rise of which, he contended, was ‘a dreadful monument to two or three generations of an inadequate, mean spirited and sectarian leadership of unionism.’ Cook clearly knew republicanism better than it knew itself. Just get the British to change rather than leave and that would satisfy most of its adherents.

With this in mind Cook while critical of republicans was scathing of unionism to which he protested the ‘habitual sectarian mean-spiritedness of so many unionist spokesmen and representatives’ which although unnecessary and counterproductive nonsense had ‘more serious consequences than nonsense.’ Anti-nationalist often amounted to being anti-Catholic. David Trimble who would eventually arrive at Cook’s position was dismissed by the author as displaying gross inadequacies in his speech at the 1996 Unionist Party conference where he said no compromise between unionism and nationalism was possible: ‘he is wrong and he has clearly not yet entered the real world.’ 

Cook’s political vision in 1997 was an all Ireland political administration that would not be the united Ireland of republican mythology. Such an administration would give rise to the conditions whereby a thirty two county unitary state ‘was off the agenda either forever or for several generations to come’. While he might prefer the scenes to be played by different actors with more talent, he is unlikely to complain that he got ushered to the wrong screen. The plot is the same and even without an effective all Ireland administration there is nothing on the agenda but the agenda. 

David, Cook, 1997Blocking The Slippery Slope.  Banford Press.


  1. I can't help but notice that the description sounds so very like Lord Macaulay!"If only we superior beings(The British) hadn't made some few errors,with these primitives-----" - not unlike the formula in "South Park"(hope you get it there) "Underwear plus ????= Profit?!?!

  2. Christopher Hitchens reviewing "The Zealot" a biography of Arthur Koestler cites his abandonment of Communism after the 1938 Stalinist show trials: "It is a logical contradiction when with uncanny regularity the leadership sees itself obliged to undertake more and more bloody operations within the movement, and in the same breath insists that the movement is healthy. Such an accumulation of grave surgical interventions points with much greater likelihood to the existence of a much more serious illness."

    I read this review today before your post, AM. I'd thought of you between Koestler's lines already, and even more so after your reflections here. Thanks for them.

  3. While Irish Republicans need to take into account the views and feelings of all shades of Unionism.....

    We also need to challenge them on aspects of the perils of supporting the British State in it's occupation of part of Ireland.

  4. Ardoyne Republican, how would you explain the perils to them?

  5. Interestign piece raising many questions and challenges for republicans who wsh to build a joint future. Any chance of you speaking with David and getting his present assessment of the situation.

    Also is his document on line anywhere

  6. Starry Plough, I will talk to him and ask him if he wants to write a piece. I only recently read it and found his perspective had a lot of foresight. Not sure if it is online. Will ask him if he has an electronic copy which I will forward on to you if he has.