9 AUGUST 1975, Page 6

Political Commentary

Mr Powell and `Loyalism'

Patrick Cosgrave

On page 178 of this issue we carry an important article by Mr Glenn Barr, who was one of the most important figures in the Ulster workers' strike which destroyed the power-sharing executive led by Mr Brian Faulkner. Mr Barr has gone from strength to strength since that Irish evenement: he now represents Vanguard' in the Ulster Convention, though he has not, significantly, sought election to the Parliament of Westminster. Vanguard is, of course, a part of the United Ulster 'Loyalist' movement, along with Mr Harry West's Westminster Unionists (Mr Powell's group) and Dr Ian Paisley's party. The alliance of the three groups is, if not fragile, then uncertain, and the nature of its uncertainty is a portent for the political future of Ulster.

In considering the motives, prospects and aims of all the political elements which now exist in Ulster two important general points must be borne in mind. First, in the minds of all parties the supreme question is no longer integration, nor union with the Republic, but that of the internal governance of Northern Ireland. Second, the security situation in so far as the IRA is concerned is now better in the Republic than in Ulster: several important IRA leaders now operate north of the border, and consider themselves safer there than in the Republic — especially since the arrest of Mr David O'Connell — and the British Govern ment's tolerance of that situation is perhaps the major factor which convinces both the Ulster parties and the Dublin government that Whitehall is concerned above all with peace on the ground at any price.

Of course, since the current spate of Northern Irish troubles began in 1969 there has been a change of government in Dublin, and this has led to a change in the strategy of the Republic which would have been inconceivable ten years ago. Throughout his administration Mr Jack Lynch — now leader of the Opposition Fianna Fail party — maintained in principle that commitment to a united Ireland which marked all Dublin policy from 1922 onwards. At the same time there was — or so it seemed to many British politicians and officials — a

distressing ambiguity in his attitude to the IRA. Mr Liam Cosgrave's government is, of course, quite exceptionally unambiguous in its attitude to terrorism, and accepts as its first objective in the North the preservation of human life. This means that Mr Cosgrave and Dr Garret Fitzgerald and their colleagues are in principle prepared to consider even the eventual emergence of an independent Ulster — perhaps linked in some federal or confederal way with either London or Dublin, perhaps not — provided only that this was not created until after a long period of peace and stability in Ulster, that period being required to assure them that independence would not be followed by a pogrom of Catholics, especially those vulnerable Catholic communities on the East coast. They also regard the continued presence of the British Army in the North as essential — official Irish sniping at the army has now ceased — because it is the only military power in the province dedicated to the state, and without a political objective of its own. A few years ago one could have imagined a British government taking full advantage of that situation, and using it to crush both para-military forces in the North, Protestant and Catholic: now Mr Wilson and Mr Rees appear to hesitate as to objectives, and this gives rise to doubts about their commitment.

On their side, of course, there is, serious concern about whether powerful elements in the two communities in Ulster do not want their own independence, and do not care for that even above the Westminster connection. Dublin, for example, fears that, in the event of a break-up in Ulster there will emerge two proto-Fascist mini-states, one dominated by the Provisional IRA, one by armed Protestants. At the same time there are clearly different emphases on the elements making up the Loyalist movement: Mr West and Mr Powell and their colleagues at Westminster — all, perhaps, but one or two — want a continuance of the Westminster link; Dr Paisley and his colleagues appear above all concerned with the preservation of the dominant position of Protestantism; and Mr Barr and his colleagues — including Mr Craig — appear set on an eventual independence.

Mr Powell has recently made two speeches defining the character of Loyalism as consisting, essentially, of obedience to the will of the sovereign parliament of the United Kingdom. He has met with a great deal of criticism in Ulster as a result of these two speeches. Mr West has spoken to him concerning them. There have been rumours that Mr Powell — whose majority in his South Down constituency at the last general election was below expectations — might lose the next contest there, or even perhaps fail to gain the Unionist nomination again. Certainly, there are many Protestants in Ulster who have all along either doubted Mr Powell's commitment to them, or accurately understood it as being dependent on their commitment to obedience to Westminster, which is not something that has ever notably marked Ulster Unionism; and members of the Dublin government have all along feared Mr Powell in just the same way as liberals in Great Britain have feared him, and suspected him of being an irresponsible demagogue. In difficulties or not, Mr Powell has now emerged as the most talented moderate Unionist politician, in the sense that moderation implies ;a continued commitment to parliamentary democracy, and a continued eschewing of the aim of an independent Protestant Republic.

And Mr Powell's friends are convinced that he is in no serious trouble at all. For one thing there is the fact mentioned earlier — that all but one or two of his colleagues in his own section of the united Loyalist movement share his definition of Loyalism. For another, Mr Powell has his own powerful conviction that, even in Ulster today, there is no body of people more important than those elected to serve in the sovereign parliament of Westminster — he seems to have scarcely any regard for the Convention. Again, Mr Powell and his friends seem to share the belief that both a majority Of his own electors in South Down and a majoritY of the electors in Ulster as a whole support him or — as one of his admirers put it to me — would support him if they were absolutelY convinced they could rely in the future either on the policy and strategy of the Dublin government as I have outlined it, or on the continued commitment of the British government to the preservation of both law and order and the link with Northern Ireland. In other words, Mr Powell depends for survival on the existence of a truly Loyalist majority, moderate and even-handed in his view of how the province should be governed internally and as between the two religious communities. Failure on the part of the Dublin and London governments, and the Catholic SDLP party to anticipate that this would inevitably be Mr Powell's position has led to no end of unnecessary misunderstandings in the past. Of course, Mr Wilson and Mr Rees have given a number of assurances as to their positions; but so did Mr Heath's government and, like it or not, the record of both gives rise to doubts about British intentions now. The Catholic community and its representatives — I do not regard the Provisional IRA as being representative of more than a tiny fragment of Catholic opinion, North or South — are much less important in the various complicated equations to be completed as are the Protestants, for the Catholics, like the Dublin government, are prepared to accepl that the status quo, so far as the presence of the Army and the link with Britain is concerned, is in their best interests — though if they cannot get a power-sharing executive they would want direct rule to continue, it being something that could be maintained for some time if the Convention takes a sufficiently long period, over its deliberations and the British government a sufficiently long time in coming to its final conclusion on any report it submits. The British government, unfortunately, seems determined in no circumstances to risk any escalation of violence in Ulster, and therefore proposes to continue to release detainees (the rate of release has caused some concern to the Tory spokesman on Northern Ireland, Mr AireY Neave) and avoid action which would contradict the widespread belief that it is prepared to continue with at least a tacit co-operation with the IRA. The fact that there are increasingly strong elements in the Labour Party which would — especially since the failure of Mr Len" Murray's unsuccessful appeal to Ulster's Protestant workers — favour total withdrawal from Northern Ireland, and hope that the Irish would have enough good sense not then to begin fighting with one another, lends credence to doubts about Mr Rees's real intentions. The extraordinary situation has thus arisen in which the Provos and the extreme Protestants are at one side of the equation with the British government and Mr Cosgrave, Mr Fitt, Mr Powell and Mr West are on the other. As usual, the British Army, forced to accept the galling situation in which the much improved Southern Irish Army and police have greater freedom to pursue terrorists than themselves, is in the middle. Without some evidence that the intentions of the British government are more constructive than they appear the equation dmaatye. well produce Ulster's greatest tragedy to