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South Africa
Northern Ireland

De Klerk of Unionism
Does Northern Ireland have anything to learn from South Africa? Gavin Evans compares
the position of David Trimble, the new hardline boss of Ulster Unionism,
with that of FW de Klerk, the last white-rule boss of South Africa.

The search is on in Northern Ireland for an illusive hero, the ‘de Klerk of Unionism’. He has yet to be found. The one place not to look – or so we are told – is David Trimble’s office. The truth is, however, that there is a good deal more in common between the two party leaders than conventional wisdom might suggest.

When ‘FW’ rose to power he was an apartheid hardliner, viewed as a counterweight to the ultra-right Conservative Party. He was opposed to any compromise with majority rule and to this day remains ill at ease with black people. He was very much a grassroots party stalwart as well as being a leader of the Broederbond, a secret Afrikaner society which, like the Orange Order, was losing influence. He was an outsider to the reformist but authoritarian clique around his predecessor PW Botha, who opposed him vigorously. He was a clean-living, bright and articulate young lawyer, sharp and tough enough to take on the world. You could paint a very similar picture of David Trimble.

Far more pertinent than the superficial similarities, however, is the difference in the political mix. De Klerk realized that his government could not hold out against the forces pushing to end white rule. Mass political revolt and financial sanctions were making the country ungovernable. In contrast, Northern Ireland is flourishing with new investment. Britain may have arrived at the conclusion that a gradual transition to a united Ireland is desirable, but is constrained by past commitments and internal political considerations from spelling this out.

In a united Ireland the percentage of Protestants in the population as a whole would be comparable with the 23 per cent of non-Africans in South Africa. Unfortunately for the nationalists, however, the gerrymandering that gave rise to the six counties in 1922 has rather more profound resonance than apartheid’s partition policy. In Northern Ireland Protestants still comprise close to 60 per cent of the population, and that reality gives Trimble leeway that de Klerk never enjoyed.

While the IRA had a more sophisticated and successful military strategy than the ANC, Sinn Fein is far weaker in its political reach, and there has been little attempt to sell the ‘Pan Nationalist Front’ beyond its Catholic confine. Despite nationalist claims to have a secular agenda, in practice their approach to politics remains tribal.

This is one lesson Gerry Adams and John Hume could well learn from the anti-apartheid forces: the importance of working within the opposition community. The ANC had a strong white presence in its leadership corps and thousands of supporters working within white-based organizations to build a bridgehead for majority rule – a factor which contributed to ‘enemy’ divisions in the negotiation period. In contrast, Irish nationalists face an opponent which remains united in terms of basic support for the Union. As a result, although the gap between white and black in South Africa (in terms of income, culture, language and education) was far wider than between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, the Unionists have yet to feel a comparable impetus for change.

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'Hard-liners' with something in common: FW de Klerk   [image, unknown]
'Hard-liners' with something in common: FW de Klerk ...and the new leader of the Ulster Unionists, David Trimble. [image, unknown]
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By unbanning the ANC de Klerk hoped to secure the kind of peace that would provide all the benefits of ending the siege without the drawback of conceding real power. In the five years of his rule 13,000 people died in political violence. It is now beyond dispute that he knew what his security forces were up to, who was calling the shots, and that he could have done more to stop it. David Trimble has neither the power nor the inclination to follow this less savoury aspect of the de Klerk legacy.

There are, nonetheless, useful lessons for Northern Ireland from the ‘FW’ approach. One comes with the issue of surrendering arms. In South Africa violence from all sides continued throughout the negotiation process; it took two years of top-level talking before the ANC revealed its first arms caches. Watching the Northern Ireland peace process from the outside it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that the demand for an IRA arms handover before talks begin rests more on political expedience than on principle, and can only result in a stalling of the peace process.

In Ireland, as in South Africa, there is an inevitability about fundamental change which cannot be escaped. So often I have heard northern Unionists say that the situation is really far more complex than we foreigners appreciate. Exactly the same things, very often in identical words, were said by white South Africans. But, as de Klerk belatedly came to realize, simplistic international perceptions can turn out to be rather more realistic and accurate than the intricate home-ground prejudices.

While the political pressures in Northern Ireland may be different, in the long term the economics of the island and the changing demographics of its northern corner seem to make a certainty of the eventual transition to single nationhood, albeit with provision for a high level of regional and religious autonomy. The forces pulling people together appear more resilient than the prejudices keeping them apart. Geographical logic will have its way with historical folly.

De Klerk the heel-digger of the 1980’s only became de Klerk the power-sharer of the 1990’s because he was smart enough to realize his options were narrowing. In the end, after resisting it for so long, he cut a deal that was not to his liking because, basically, he had no choice. If David Trimble can learn to smell the roses a bit earlier in his reign he will be doing his party, his cause and perhaps even himself one huge favour.

Gavin Evans, for ten years a member of the ANC, worked as a journalist in South Africa and now lives in London, reporting regularly on Northern Ireland.

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