Unionism is in crisis in spite of the so-called ‘stay of execution’ by Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on pulling his ministers out of the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive, thereby sparking a potential New Year Stormont election rather than the scheduled election in May 2022.
In spite of him maintaining that progress has been made on the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Irish Sea border it created, a section of loyalist opinion has again expressed its anger against the Protocol by orchestrating sporadic street violence.
Perhaps the real issue which Unionists are angry about is the potential - if opinion polls are taken as a benchmark - that the outcome of that Stormont election, whenever it comes, will see Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party and be entitled to nominate for the post of First Minister.
This scenario is mainly based on a past Lucid Talk poll which showed Sinn Fein on 25% support while each of the three main Unionist parties - the DUP, Ulster Unionist Party, and Traditional Unionist Voice were trailing in the teens in terms of percentage support.
If the Lucid Talk poll was replicated in the next Stormont election, Unionism again would find itself trailing electorally to republicanism, posing the dilemma - would any of the Unionist parties who finished as runner-up MLA-wise to Sinn Fein dare to nominate for the post of deputy First Minister?
At present, many within the pro-union community are pouring over the technicalities of both the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and 2006 St Andrews Agreement to find political loopholes which would effectively keep Sinn Fein out of the First Minister’s post.
Unionist anguish has been heightened with opinion polls in the Irish Republic which suggest growing support for Sinn Fein. Again, if these polls were replicated in the next Dail election, would Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald be on course to be the next Taoiseach?
Indeed, could the ultimate nightmare for Unionism be a Sinn Fein First Minister at Stormont working hand in glove with a Sinn Fein Taoiseach in Dublin’s Leinster House? Would that scenario trigger the supposed political boogie man of a border poll on Irish Unity?
It must not be forgotten that the outcome of the last Dail General Election witnessed an historic coalition between bitter rivals Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to keep Sinn Fein out of power the Republic.
Could a situation now arise politically that what was standard practice in the past for the election to posts in the Northern Assembly and Southern Dail will depend on the interpretation of loopholes and technicalities?
The bitter medicine which all the parties on this island must face - as well as the British Government in Westminster - is the nature of the processes that reach these agreements.
Put bluntly, they lack sufficient focus and are too opaque. What worked for the UUP and moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and for the DUP and Sinn Fein in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement is no longer relevant, sustainable or workable in 2021.
Both the 1998 and 2006 agreements worked on the basis of trust between the relevant parties. The crisis facing the institutions in Belfast, Dublin and especially the cross-border bodies is that that trust has evaporated.
With Unionism no longer in the electoral majority in Northern Ireland and constitutional republicanism, as represented by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, no longer the dominant force in the Republic, the time has come for a new Anglo-Irish Treaty to prepare for a Shared Island built primarily on trust between the relevant parties.
But in terms of this trust, does enough trust exist at the moment to allow them to reach a sustainable new agreement? In short, what may be required is a new Anglo-Irish Treaty between Stormont, Westminster and Leinster House to stabilise the peace process in Northern Ireland in a post pandemic and post Brexit society.
After all, 6 December 2021 marked the centenary of the original Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 between the British Government and Irish republicans, which ironically led to the Irish Civil War.
Practically, could this trust be achieved by creating a simple political jigsaw piece which would pull together the benefits of various agreements and declarations, such as: 1993 - Downing Street Declaration; 1998 - Good Friday Agreement; 2004 - Leeds Castle peace talks; 2006 - St Andrews Agreement; 2020 - New Decade, New Approach Deal?
The current Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive was once dubbed Sunningdale for slow learners!
What was the key political ingredient which enabled Brian Faulkner, a former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and a one-time doyen of the Unionist Right-wing, along with Gerry Fitt, a founder of the moderate SDLP and a committed socialist, to form the 1973 Sunningdale power-sharing Executive?
The simple answer is trust between Faulkner and Fitt. Both men had no secret agendas, just a clear desire to work together to build peace in Northern Ireland.
Ironically, both Fitt and Faulkner found themselves pushed out by hardline elements within their respective parties. Fitt left the SDLP, but lost his West Belfast Westminster bolthole to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein in the 1983 General Election when the SDLP split the moderate nationalist vote.
Faulkner found himself out of step with mainstream Unionism, and converted his Pro-Assembly (Sunningdale) movement into the liberal Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. The UPNI eventually folded in the aftermath of Faulkner’s death in a horse riding accident.
However, the failure of the Sunningdale Executive in 1974 when it collapsed under the weight of the Ulster Workers’ Council street muscle was actually the Sunningdale Executive’s inability to sell that message to the Northern Ireland population, especially in Unionism.
If a new Anglo-Irish Treaty is to work and bring peace across the island of Ireland, it will require politicians from the various relevant parties to build personal trust among themselves as elected representatives, whilst at the same time bringing their respective electoral bases along with them at the same time and pace.
Then again, before any workable new Anglo-Irish Treaty is agreed and implemented, those respective parties need to throw into that mix the Brexit referendum in which Northern Ireland as a region of the UK voted remain; as well as the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Like it or not, the firm foundation for any new Anglo-Irish Treaty will be a resolution to both the Protocol and the wider Brexit implications. Without this vital political bedrock, any talks on an Anglo-Irish Treaty will go the same way as the Sunningdale Executive - and possibly even a collapse of the current Stormont Executive. Trust remains the key.
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.