William Hague: unable to control the ranks

Tory split on Ireland

Assembly elections

As the June 25 elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly approached, Blair’s hopes for a clear victory for the pro-agreement forces were set back by the partial ending of British bipartisanship over Ireland.

The traditional joint approach by the main British imperialist parties was suspended when the Tories decided to vote against the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill last week. In accordance with the British-Irish Agreement, the bill provides for the early release of prisoners of war who are not “supporters of a terrorist organisation”. Groups such as the IRA which maintain a “complete and unequivocal ceasefire” are no longer deemed to be “terrorist”. Their members would qualify for early release as long as their organisations were considered to be “cooperating fully” with the arms decommissioning body. The Northern Ireland secretary - currently Mo Mowlam - has the final say on the freedom of individual prisoners.

During last month’s referendum campaign Blair was at pains to assure unionists that nobody would be released unless arms were being handed over. But the bill does not insist upon the prior surrender of weapons because, as Mowlam explained, such a commitment was not written into the agreement, which had to be accepted in its entirety. The Conservative and Ulster Unionist parties put forward an amendment tying early releases to “the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations and the achievement of the decommissioning ... by May 22 2000”. When this was rejected, both parties voted against the bill.

Before last week UUP leader David Trimble had seemed prepared to support Blair’s more open-ended line. However, he came under increasing pressure from his MPs and party organisation to distance himself from the legislation. Clearly the sound of the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley breathing down his neck was not to Trimble’s liking.

The vote was preceded by heartfelt pleas from Labour to maintain the imperialist consensus on Irish questions. But Tory Northern Ireland spokesperson Andrew Mackay denied that the bipartisan policy had been ended, drawing a parallel with the Labour Party’s own actions when in opposition: “Labour voted against the Prevention of Terrorism Act at critical times in the fight against the IRA. But still an overall bipartisan policy held.”

He explained that the Tories had “reluctantly consented to legislation” over prisoner release when it first came before the Commons because it “was part of an overall agreement”. Only when their amendment was not accepted did they vote against at the third reading.

The decision produced strong criticism from sections of the establishment. The Independent referred to “the folly of breaking the cross-party accord” (June 22) and Labour’s Stephen Hesford, MP for Wirral West, called the Tory vote “an act of political terrorism”. He feared as a result that “extremists opposed to the peace process” would “make damaging headway” in the assembly elections: “The Conservative Party will have to bear a great deal of responsibility for the consequences which could follow - be it instability or, worse, a return to violence” (letters, The Independent June 23).

Immediately after the vote Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and Lord Alderdice, leader of the Alliance Party in the Six Counties, made a joint appeal to Tory peers to support the bill in the Lords. Ashdown said the Tories had chosen “the worst imaginable time to break with the well established tradition of bipartisanship”.

This appeal, backed by Downing Street, was not just a case of barking in the wind. The Tories are far from united on this whole question. While only former Conservative minister Douglas Hogg voted with the government, many others abstained. Those who were present but did not vote included John Major and former Northern Ireland minister Sir Brian Mawhinney. Half the shadow cabinet failed to follow the official Tory line.

Despite these divisions, the threat to disrupt the legislation - and the peace process itself - in the Lords is real. Tory peers are led by Lord Cranbourne, an ultra-reactionary unionist, who would dearly love to wreck not only Blair’s Northern Ireland settlement but his whole programme of constitutional reform, not least the abolition of hereditary peers like Cranbourne himself.

Sections of the Conservative Party still believe that a crisis in the Six Counties could be their opportunity. The advance they envisage for themselves would not necessarily be made through constitutional means. No doubt many have fond memories of Lord Carson, who led a protestant rebellion against Asquith’s Home Rule Bill in 1912, setting up the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Last weekend The Daily Telegraph took up Carson’s cause once again. It reported that the government is secretly planning to move his statue, along with one of Sir James Craig, from the front of the Stormont building to a more inconspicuous location. That would clear the way for the new assembly to meet at Stormont, free of the trappings of the old Ulster. An inscription at the foot of Carson’s statue states that it was erected “by the loyalists of Ulster as an expression of their love and admiration”. UUP assembly candidate Chris McGimpsey says: “Carson saved Ulster and this is an affront to its people.”

The Telegraph editorial commented: “Unionists care passionately and they are right to care. To move Carson’s statue ... would be yet another betrayal of Northern Ireland.” It called on its readers to stand by the legacy of “this brilliant protestant lawyer, born in Dublin, who warned strongly against the division of Ireland, but stood by the people of Ulster when Westminster was too stupid to understand their plight” (June 20).

Today, of course, the reactionary wing of the Conservative Party is most certainly not “against the division of Ireland”. A united Ireland reincorporated into the UK is beyond even their retrogressive ambitions. Instead hold on to “Ulster”. While most believe that the agreement will ensure this, the legitimising of “terrorists”, whom the British state was unable to defeat despite almost 30 years of bloody oppression, is more than many can stomach.

This section is backing the rejection wing of the UUP and would not be averse to seeing Paisley leading the biggest unionist bloc in the assembly. As we go to press, such an outcome does not look likely. The election campaign was remarkably low-key, and the single transferable vote system also favours moderate unionists. A few days before voting, Trimble made a play for the lower preference votes of SDLP and Sinn Féin supporters. He called for “a new Northern Ireland in which pluralist unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility that is the foundation of freedom”.

To be sure, this remains a vision of a partitioned Northern Ireland under British domination, but it represents a clear departure from the old sectarian gerrymandered statelet. Within a very short time Sinn Féin itself will emerge in the dull colours of a major force of “constitutional nationalism”. During the campaign SF leaders made it clear that they were “ready for government”. They were hoping for a further increase in support, perhaps even replacing the SDLP as the biggest nationalist party in terms of votes. This, if combined with a big DUP vote, would destabilise Blair’s peace process and could give the Tory ultra-reactionaries the chance they have been waiting for.

Jim Blackstock