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RITCHIE Richard

Richard Ritchie was an aide to Enoch Powell, and was his former archivist.

It is not enough to be vindicated in politics; the vindication needs to take place speedily enough to be relished and enjoyed.  One politician for whom this was especially true was Enoch Powell, whose views today are, in some respects, more mainstream than ever they were in his lifetime.  And maybe Ulster could become another example of this tendency.

As the two main parties in Northern Ireland struggle to re-establish a power-sharing administration for the Province, it is worth remembering why its collapse was, at some stage, almost inevitable.

Irish Republicanism has always been united in its aim for a United Ireland, even though it may have been divided over the means of accomplishing it. Unionism, on the other hand, is fundamentally divided on one crucial matter.  While Unionists are united in their loyalty to the Crown – and to some extent, in their dislike and suspicion of Catholicism – the majority of Unionist politicians has equated ‘Unionism’ with ‘home-rule’ from Stormont (and distrust of Westminster) while a small minority has regarded their full and equal representation in the House of Commons as the ultimate safeguard of the Union. Indeed, for some Unionists the preservation of Stormont is what they mean by Unionism, and their interest in the Westminster Parliament is minimal.

This was what so often divided Powell from his Unionist colleagues when he took the fateful step of becoming a Unionist MP. For a short period, it looked as if he might have become the leader of the Official Ulster Unionists pledged to ensure that Ulster was governed no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Indeed, it was Powell who was successful in bringing about an increase in Ulster’s representation in the House of Commons. At that time, legislative devolution had not advanced in Scotland or in Wales to anything like the extent we know today and to which Powell would have been strongly opposed. So, to all intents and purposes his policy meant direct rule from Westminster with possibly an additional layer of local government in Ulster. Such a policy was anathema to the IRA because it was unequivocal in regarding the separate existence of Ulster as permanent.

The alternative Unionist position was that Westminster could not be trusted, and that the only way of safeguarding the Union was the restoration of Stormont. It is this view which prevailed, although at the cost of sharing power with terrorists. Powell did not accept today’s widely held view that it is acceptable to negotiate with former terrorists in order to safeguard peace. He argued that this made much more likely the eventual achievement of the terrorist’s objectives – namely a United Ireland outside the United Kingdom.

What we are witnessing now is the inevitable consequence of John Major’s and Tony Blair’s approach to Ulster – and the connivance of Unionists such as the late Ian Paisley with this strategy. A power sharing government at Stormont divided on the paramount objective was bound to break down as soon as republican supporters of a United Ireland saw an opportunity. This opportunity has been created partly by Brexit, partly through demographic change, and partly through Unionist complacency.

Currently, Mrs May’s Conservative Government is desperate for a power-sharing government in Ulster to be restored, partly because it has enough problems to deal with already, and also because arguably it makes even more sense now that Wales has its own Assembly and Scotland its own Parliament. There is, however, one big difference. Legislative devolution in Scotland and Wales was intended to buy-off nationalism; in Ulster it was a concession to republicanism. One might think, then, that there is still at least a segment of Unionist opinion which would not regard the restoration of direct rule as the disaster which most seem to assume.

Many supporters of Powell were never happy with his decision to become a Member of Parliament for an Ulster constituency. It had never been part of the plan. When Powell left the Conservative Party in February 1974, he assumed and accepted that he was also terminating his political career. It was only the inconclusive result of that election which opened up the possibility and opportunity of a speedy return to the House of Commons. Since then, the whole unity of the United Kingdom has been called into question, and thus the Powellite analysis would suggest a preference for outright Scottish independence, over the legislative half-way house which prevails at the moment.

So far as Ulster is concerned, however, the outlook is even more uncertain.  Even the strongest supporter of Brexit must concede that it does raise questions over how to enforce what is currently the UK’s one land border but which, following a further Scottish referendum, could be joined by another. It must surely only be a matter of time before a demand for a referendum on Irish Unity becomes inevitable. For those Unionists who would regard this as a disaster, one wonders whether they will ever regret their failure to follow Powell’s advice to opt for direct rule over Stormont.  And is this option still open to them?

19 comments for: Richard Ritchie: Power-sharing government at Stormont is always bound to break down

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