I took part in a Young Unionist debate at the UUP headquarters in Belmont Road on Thursday last. It was, you could say, an occasion of two halves.
The first half - well no, not so much first half as good part - was the civility and warmth with which I was greeted. It wasn’t a huge occasion (our audience was small but perfectly formed) and it wasn’t something that made any great demands on me, but people were repeated in their thanks for my participating. They were young people I enjoyed talking to and debating with. Which is how these things should be: a differing political stance should not interfere with decent relationships between political opponents.
The not-so-good part...No, let me be frank. The depressing part was the view of politics that emerged in the course of the debate and questions from the floor. The topic for debate was the SPADs bill and whether it was a good or a bad thing. In fact, the discussion ranged much more widely than that - back to the establishment of the UVF and further. My reasons for being uncheerful? I’ll try to list them as accurately as I can. If I get any wrong I’m sure I’ll be corrected.
- The Troubles were the fault of a small group of violent republican criminals who murdered ruthlessly for several decades.
- The notion of any equivalence between the IRA and the state/British forces would be laughable if it weren’t so obscene.
- Terrorism is always wrong and to compare the IRA to the ANC, let alone Gerry Adams to Nelson Mandela (I didn’t actually), was ridiculous.
- The notion of commemorating IRA dead with commemorating British army dead was outrageous. So too was the comparison of dressing up of children in IRA uniform/regalia with the Boys’ Brigade (I did actually).
- The SPADs bill was a very good thing and had signalled to republicans that, having been elected to Stormont, they couldn’t just lower a rope-ladder and winch up their hard-line elements at will and give them jobs.
- The conditionality (yes, I hate the word too) of republicans in saying that violence should be suspended now but leaving open the possibility of its resumption in the future was outrageous.
- The formation of the UVF and its threat of violence to the British state was different from the IRA’s violence against the British state because the UVF’s was a defensive threat. It said ‘Here we are, come and get us, but if you do, we’ll use all means to resist’. The IRA, on the other hand, threatened and engaged in violence against the legally-constituted government of the state.
So what’s depressing about all that? Well, it’s that these young men (mainly young men) were full of suspicion of republicans, full of resentment at what they had done, appeared to believe the state played no part in creating the conditions for conflict, and saw no validity of any kind in the notion of Ireland, north and south, as a country.
In terms of attitude, it could have been 1954 or 1961 - things would be fine if republicans would abandon their violent ways and promise never ever to revert to them again (that’s the conditionality thing), and drop this foolish notion of national unity. Meanwhile, the SPADs bill would soften Sinn Féin’s cough for them and would give no succour of any kind to dissident republicans. It would also let Sinn Féin know that because they’d been elected didn’t mean they could enlist the hardline elements in republicanism to join them and work at Stormont.
In a way, the niceness of the people articulating these views made it all the more depressing. Sinn Féin have a policy of outreach to unionism. Judging from Thursday night, lads, you have your work cut out for you.