The Ulster Unionist Council’s decision to bow before the party’s rejectionist wing and fire a missile into the heart of the 1998 British-Irish Good Friday agreement, while disappointing for supporters of the deal, can hardly be said to have come as a surprise.

David Trimble’s weakness as the under-fire leader of an increasingly divided party, the ambivalence of even supposedly pro-agreement unionists, ongoing loyalist sectarian violence, Britain’s reluctance to face down unionist rejectionists and Dublin’s reluctance to ruffle the feathers of the Blair government have all taken their toll.

Given the possibility that the agreement has taken a fatal hit, non-unionist critics of the agreement may feel tempted to crow, “I told you so.” To do so would be to miss the significance of the Good Friday agreement and its impact on developments over the last four-and-a-half years.

The Irish Democrat, the oldest campaigning journal of the Irish in Britain, has been a strong and constant supporter of the agreement and has looked forward to its full implementation. It has done so in the full knowledge that, while the agreement does not address the unresolved questions arising from the partition of Ireland, the promise of major reforms ranging from prisoners, policing, the criminal justice system and Britain’s military presence, had the potential to fulfill the original civil-rights agenda of the 1960s and to create a new dispensation in the north based on equality.

The cross-border bodies, while limited in the areas of authority that they encompass and far from perfect, have also been important, although so far largely for symbolic reasons. This, of course, is precisely why they have again become a key target for rejectionist unionism.

It was Desmond Greaves, historian, campaigner and editor of the Irish Democrat for 40 years, who originally identified the effect that the implementation of equality reforms would have on the then-stranglehold of Ulster unionism. Greaves predicted, correctly, that civil rights reforms would divide unionism and undermine the entire foundation of unionist domination.

Much has happened since Greaves’ death in 1988. However, one thing is certain: the peace process initiated by John Hume and Gerry Adams and the subsequent agreement signed on Good Friday 1998 have effectively carried on the job started by the civil rights activists of the ’60s. Here lie the real reasons behind unionist opposition to the Good Friday reforms.

Though unionists like to window-dress their reasoning with liberal references to concern over republican – never loyalist – violence and by questioning the IRA’s commitment to the peace process, what really concerns them is equality for the nationalist community in the north and the prospect of having to come to terms with a united Ireland somewhere down the road.

This is why the Good Friday agreement is a good thing, overall. Even if it doesn’t survive the latest attempt by unionists to neuter it, Jeffrey Donaldson and the rest of the unionist “No” camp are kidding themselves if they think that the equality agenda promised in the agreement will not continue to be implemented by the British. The only question is at what pace?

Tony Blair and a string of British secretaries of state under Labour have spent too much time and effort trying to prop up Trimble’s leadership at the expense of pressing ahead with reform. This has played directly into the hands of hard-line rejectionists, who have taken every opportunity to throw a monkey wrench into the Good Friday works in the hope of burying the deal.

Westminster now needs to make it clear that unionists have no option in this matter – however change is delivered. Of course, they may need some persuading. It is here that progressive and democratic forces in Britain – including the British labor movement – have an important role to play.

This is no time to sit on the sidelines. Let’s work together alongside our friends in Ireland and other parts of the world to ensure that our voice is heard.

David Granville is the editor of the Irish Democrat, the bimonthly journal of the Connolly Association, and can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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