BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 03.03.02

Film: Film on Northern Ireland Protestants. Iain Watson looks at why Northern Ireland's Protestants are becoming disillusioned about the peace process and the implications for the Good Friday Agreement.

IAIN WATSON: It's a measure of progress that Belfast is open to satire, and not just strife. UNNAMED MAN: "Oh I have warned the people of Ulster about this so called peace process." WATSON: This 'Tinderbox' theatre company production is set against a backdrop of a referendum on a United Ireland in 2005. That may make Unionists in the audience a little nervous, as there's increasing sense that the Good Friday Agreement has delivered more for the nationalist community than it has for them. JEFFREY DONALDSON MP: There is a growing sense of alienation within the Unionist community, at this time. many Unionists, even those who voted for the agreement in 1998 now feel that the process has become so one-sided, so unbalanced, that really something needs to be done. MARTIN MCGUINNESS: The fact that Sinn Fein is the largest political party in Belfast, the largest political party west of the bann, with increasing numbers of people supporting our party, not just in the north, but in the south as well, that this is a reality that Unionists have to come to terms with now, they shouldn't fear that. WATSON: Northern Ireland's first minister David Trimble faces a potentially divisive debate next week when the Ulster Unionists gather for their annual general meeting. He has to report back to a sceptical audience on the progress - or lack of it -on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. Last October, the IRA announced finally that they were beginning to put arms beyond use. Now you might think that would be enough to rekindle waning enthusiasm in the peace process amongst Unionists. But it appears to have done no such thing, and on Saturday, David Trimble will once again come under pressure from sections of his own party to take a harder line with Sinn Fein. Now, disagreements within Unionism are almost as old the Union itself, but some say this constant haranguing of David Trimble is a symptom of wider discontent with the Good Friday Agreement. Both communities are content to share a drink and a chat during the interval of 'Caught Red Handed' - a pun on the emblem of Ulster. Exit polls suggested between fifty-one and fifty-five per cent of Protestant voters backed the Good Friday Agreement at the 1998 referendum, but a distinguished observer of Unionist politics says support has been drifting away since. DR SYDNEY ELLIOT: Looking at the votes for the main parties at the general election last June, I would guess that somewhere between thirty-five and possibly forty per cent of Unionists might now support the position of the Belfast agreement, if there was a referendum again. WATSON: Ulster marketing surveys has brought together a group of Unionist voters to discuss their thoughts on the Good Friday Agreement four years on. They are not a representative sample of the entire Unionist population; all of them voted in favour of the Agreement back in 1998 and most would still vote for it today - but, more out of a sense of resignation than enthusiasm. UNNAMED MAN: I did vote yes, on the back of the promises made by Tony Blair when he came over on the day of the actual referendum. and he wrote them down in black and white and just about every one of them has been broken. UNNAMED WOMAN: I voted for the Unionists, I also voted for the assembly referendum and I don't think it's achieved anything at all. WATSON: This night of Ulster Scots' music has been organised as part of Belfast's cross-community campaign to become a future European Capital of Culture. But it's really a city of two cultures, Nationalist and Unionist. In a reversal of traditional roles, Unionists now feel that Nationalism is on the march. The Secretary of State John Reid has warned that Northern Ireland mustn't become 'a cold place for Protestants.' But underlying discontent could lead to future disharmony - at the 2003 assembly elections. ELLIOT: The possibility still exists of Gerry Adams being Deputy First Minister and Ian Paisley First Minister, in just over a years' time. and no one in Northern Ireland would regard such a set of institutions as workable in those circumstances. WATSON: This so-called 'peace wall' was constructed in 1969 at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland to keep apart Unionist and nationalist communities here in North Belfast. Four years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement you might assume I've come here to watch it being dismantled. No such luck. In fact, a new, higher peace wall is currently in the process of construction; and there's something of a mini boom in the building of such barriers in some parts of the city - rather robust reminders of the fragility of the peace process. And even some Unionists who were enthusiastic supporters of the Good Friday Agreement now feel a sense of disappointment. Unionist voters are especially concerned there's been no further decommissioning of weapons by the IRA. UNNAMED MAN: You know there has been an independent body which inspects, has inspected, a couple of IRA dumps, however, you know that's simply not enough when they have had all their prisoners released. UNNAMED WOMAN: Any from either side of the community, any paramilitary weapons that were actually, you know, handed in, it was just a token gesture, it was nothing worth talking about. WATSON: Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, and Northern Ireland's education minister, isn't holding out the prospect of further progress in the foreseeable future. MCGUINNESS: Let's recognise that the only group to have moved in a meaningful way to deal with this issue in the course of the recent while, has been the Irish Republican Army. The people who are squealing loudest about the need for the IRA to do that again, really should contemplate whether or not it's sensible to deal only with IRA guns, should they not face up to the reality that they have a huge responsibility to bring some delivery from loyalist death squads. WATSON: The anti-Agreement MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, won't challenge David Trimble for the leadership of the Ulster Unionists at next week's AGM, but he does want that meeting to force his leader into taking a tougher stance with Sinn Fein - which could culminate in the suspension of Northern Ireland' s power sharing executive. DONALDSON: I think we have got to make it clear as a party, that this is either a process of decommissioning leading to total disarmament or it isn't. And if it isn't, then we need to take steps to apply sanctions to Sinn Fein IRA and I don't believe they should continue to be part of an administration when, firstly they are refusing the support the police, and secondly they are holding on to illegal weapons and linked to a fully armed terrorist organisation. It's not on. WATSON: Symbols of British identity remain important to Unionists, as can be seen on some of the streets in Belfast. The government made a concession last week over the retention of British symbols in some of Northern Irelands' courtrooms, but Unionists suspect this is a 'softening up' exercise before yielding to a key Sinn Fein demand later this month - to grant IRA men on the run an amnesty. MCGUINNESS: Given that prisoners have been released in the north, in such large numbers, that the logical extension then has to be to deal with a situation where there are some people who may believe they are on the run, and some of them may not even be on the run, who've been on the run for the last thirty years in the south, I mean, surely it makes sense that those people can come home to their families. WATSON: But even moderate Unionists - close political colleagues of David Trimble's - are incensed at the prospect of an amnesty for people they see as unconvicted terrorists; something which is outside of the Good Friday Agreement. LADY SYLVIA HERMON MP: They didn't vote for an amnesty for on-the-run terrorists. It is hugely damaging actually to the agreement to have these add-on extras and I have certain sympathy, I must say, for the present Secretary of State, who was, I'm quite sure, not a party to this at all - this was one of those unpleasant and nasty little side agreements between the Prime Minister and Sinn Fein; it brings no credit on either Sinn Fein, quite frankly, or the Prime Minister that they've come to this sort of arrangement. WATSON: But granting an amnesty to terrorists isn't the only 'law and order' concern amongst Unionists. Even those who support Chris Patten's reform of policing - transforming the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary into the cross-community Policing Service of Northern Ireland - are worried about police numbers. HERMON: The idea was that, when the Patten report came out on the ninth of September nineteen-ninety-nine, that in ten years we would see the Force reduced to seven-thousand, five-hundred; now two-and-a-half years after the Patten Report the number has fallen to below seven-thousand, two-hundred, so numbers are dangerously low, I mean there's no escaping that fact quite frankly. WATSON: The feeling that the goalposts are shifting since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement is testing the resolve of those Unionist voters who back the peace process. UNNAMED WOMAN: But it just seems to be that, for the Unionist people seem to be getting isolated and separated, no backing from Britain, no backing from their own government, no backing from America, no backing from anybody. Just like nomads. ACTUALITY "Hello and welcome to Let's Chat" WATSON: Some say it will take more than kind words from the Secretary of State to stop disappointment descending into political disaster. ELLIOT: One of the criticisms of him since his time, particularly during last year, was that he was the Secretary of State for northern Catholics, northern Nationalists, and that was giving vent to a Protestant feeling about how things were going. The next year of his term in office here - if he's not moved away - could be that he actually saves the institutions from destruction in a year's time, or if he just doesn't do anything, in fact he could preside over a failure of another attempt at devolution in Northern Ireland. WATSON: The Good Friday Agreement, much against the pessimists predictions, has survived for four years. UNNAMED MAN: "There is another way for us, there has to be, I don't know exactly what it is yet" WATSON: But the government will have to do more to address underlying Unionist doubts if they're to prevent the anti-agreement politicians from picking up support.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.