In the last few weeks, the UUP has been convulsed by its most profound crisis since 1974. This crisis will have major consequences for the peace process.
A full scale split in the UUP is now inevitable. Most likely, Trimble will see off his opponents and will be left in firm control of a much smaller UUP. It is possible but unlikely that Donaldson will claim the prize of the UUP, forcing out Trimble and his allies, who would then have to consider the prospect of forming a new broadly pro-Agreement unionist party. A third possibility is that Trimble could be forced to fall on his sword and a "compromise" leader elected. No matter what scenario unfolds, a new version of the United Ulster Unionist Council is in the offing. This would bring together the anti-Agreement wing of the UUP, the DUP and the smaller unionist parties including Robert McCartney’s one man band.
Given the events that are unfolding, it is now almost inconceivable that the postponed Assembly elections will be held in the autumn. Negotiations over the summer months against the background of increased tension on the streets, though the clashes on the peace lines have been relatively few so far this year, were always unlikely to bear fruit. Now the crisis in the UUP means that meaningful talks will be postponed, at least until the autumn and possibly until 2004.
When the dust settles on the UUP split, the British government may decide to go for broke and call an election in the hope that pro-Agreement UUP forces gain enough Assembly seats (along with the PUP) to once again enter into a power sharing Executive. Such an outcome is very unlikely. The only way in which it might become possible would be if the republican movement made clear moves that could be presented as disbandment of the IRA. Even then, the anti-Agreement Unionists could still win a majority.
Such a move cannot be ruled out, but it is somewhat of a tall order. The republican leadership may go for it because the prize on offer is so attractive. However they will be very reluctant to play one of their last cards only to see Trimble heavily defeated and have to deal with the anti-Agreement unionists in a weakened position.
This does not mean that we are facing a re-run of 1974, when power-sharing collapsed and violence escalated. Even those unionists opposed to the Agreement almost all accept that power-sharing is unavoidable. The republican movement has left the idea of fighting a war to end the British presence far behind. For this reason, an election may eventually be called in order to simply elect new negotiating teams.
The crisis in the UUP is one symptom of the crisis in the Protestant community. Since the first ceasefires, the loyalist paramilitaries have been convulsed by feuds and the settling of old scores. Up to 30 have died. The feuds have been about control of areas, drugs and rackets and not about politics in any real sense. Nevertheless this endless infighting is symptomatic of the uncertainty in these communities. These upheavals have not occurred because Protestants are congenitally unable to deal with change, as many nationalists and republicans believe. The Agreement has simply not delivered in working-class areas, Catholic or Protestant. Day to day life is more peaceful, but not free from violence. The Executive has implemented anti-working class policies and poverty remains widespread.
These facts have helped to solidify the idea amongst many Protestants that the Catholic population has made all the gains, even though there is no evidence to back this up. Indeed, it is republicans who have moved the furthest on their traditional position. Any "gains", such as demilitarisation, are by products of this. These events are a political reflection of the growing polarisation in society. All the main parties deliberately whip up sectarianism in order to retain their support. The hardening of attitudes that flows from this and from their failure to deliver any tangible benefit from the peace process in working class areas must eventually reflect itself politically in the strengthening of the more extreme wings of unionism and nationalism.
Sectarian politics is a dead end for the working class. The likely further postponement of the Assembly elections has one benefit – it gives more time for the building of an alternative that can begin to break the stranglehold of the sectarian and right wing parties. We must ensure that this time is not wasted.