Give peace a chance? Give my head peace!

A unionist politician, Mr David Trimble, is quoted as saying last week: "For us unionism is not the same as thing as Protestantism... we accept difference... other points of view... sectarianism is not in our blood..."

Why should he say such a thing?

Well, the unionist hold on Ireland's northeast is politically weak. The difference in numbers between those described as Catholic and those described as Protestant is becoming less. Or to put it another way, the union with Britain will need more Catholics to accept it if it is to remain.

Another unionist politician, Terence O’Neill, saw this coming in the mid-sixties. So he tried to attract Catholics to agree to the British union. He set up a number of meetings with what he considered important – but powerless – Catholic people: nuns in convents, southern politicians, schoolchildren and so forth. The aim was to broaden the base of unionism by including some Catholics.

Minimum political change, maximum tugging at vulnerable heartstrings.
Some Catholics cooperated with this plan of O’Neill. Three of them applied for membership of the Unionist Party. If O’Neill was serious the party should welcome Catholics into it.

The three were JJ Campbell, a lecturer who later became a professor at Queen’s; B McK McGuigan, a successful solicitor and conservative Catholic; and a Mr O’Hara, a successful hotelier from Bangor, Co Down. Their application for membership of the Unionist Party was rejected. O’Neill was not as serious as he said he was.

But broadening the base of unionism by attracting Catholics into unionist politics was essential if the union was to survive with any trace of democratic process. The Catholic population from the sixties onward was not emigrating as much as it had in the past, their educational and other attainments were setting them on the way to managing most sectors of public life provided the London administration did not use armed force to prevent it.

It did, of course, use armed force to prevent it. Organisations like the UDA were among its many weapons for the purpose.

Now, if the quotation from their Mr Trimble is accurate, some unionists are now on the same course as O’Neill, offering sops to Catholics in order to win their adherence to the union.

One has seen the same procedure in football circles in order to increase the numbers of people going to the games – football controllers call for an end to sectarianism and verbal crassness, thus attracting, they hope, people of different religious backgrounds and also women and children. The profit motive is sometimes useful in both sport and politics and we should not undervalue it as an instrument for good.

The tactic of their Mr Trimble, however, is not only an old one, it is probably a too-late one.

The unionist family have chosen Mr Paisley as their preferred leader and he is against cooperation with Catholics. With the beautiful irony of money politics, this is the same man who refused cooperation with Catholics in the sixties and brought down one prime minister after another until he convinced the unionist family that negative politics was right.

They still believe it.

Is there any possibility that the resurrected O’Neill policy of attracting Catholics into the UUP will make the UUP strong enough to fight off Paisley and to secure the British union?

Well, the Alliance Party tried it and failed. The Alliance Party saw the unionist refusal and insult of Campbell, McGuigan and O’Hara in the sixties and they created a new unionist party into which Catholics would be admitted. In time the Alliance Party seemed to be supported by more Catholics than others.

And it proved to be a party of indecisive leadership.

A unionist family which tends towards Paisley also tends towards exclusion of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Humanists, Filipinos, Nigerians, and the talent of the world in general. You need expert leadership to get out of that morass. The Alliance did not have it.

It will be some time before the first batch of unionist Catholics apply openly for membership of the UUP. There is not as much goodwill towards unionists now as there was in the sixties. The goodwill towards unionists at that time was strong, as a reading of the news of the time shows. But a lot of that has been scattered, not only by Paisley, but by their Mr Trimble as well.

So now we see an interesting situation evolving in various parts. In Donegal, Protestant spokespersons are saying how much they want to be part of the community and remarking that one reason for the increase of the Protestant population in Donegal is that some are crossing the border to live there.
Times and fortunes have changed.

The unionist family is declaring that one of its many armed wings, the UDA, is getting its situation recognised as a ceasefire.

And their Mr Trimble is making the first tentative steps towards inviting Catholics to join the UUP as a counter to the dominance of Paisley's DUP and as an insurance against the small swing of voters which would be enough to put the British union in danger.

Quite interesting. And relatively harmless as long as one sees the reasons for the gestures and the emptiness of ceasefires.

So how soon can we expect some of our prominent clerics to tell us that Catholics should be joining the UUP? "Give peace a chance," they will be saying. Give our heads peace would be more like it.

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