David Trimble 'On the Ropes'

The ‘On the Ropes’ BBC Radio 4 programme on July 12th featured David Trimble, former First Minister of the currently suspended Northern Ireland Assembly. At the recent meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party’s Ruling Council he was replaced as leader by Sir Reg Empy, who had been a firm supporter during his tenure.

There is an often-quoted old saying applied in many fields, including a country's time of critical decisions, "Cometh the hour, cometh the man" (or 'person' in modern parlance!). In the event, whether one looks for resolution, solution or victory, it is clear that the the 'boy David' never did and really has not measured up to the task. Whether his replacement will remains to be seen.

From what Trimble said during the interview, it is clear that he felt that there was no trust present in his dealings with Republicans, with Prime Minister Blair and in practice also with other Unionist leaders and that he himself didn't have the full trust of his own colleagues, party members and community.

In his discussion with the BBC's John Humphries some other bits of information came to light. He claimed that neither he nor nor other participants in the Good Friday 1998 negotiations actually signed the final document.

While this may be technically true all those involved by taking part, by advocating acceptance of the agreement in their organisations and in the referendums that followed in both jurisdictions signified their support, albeit with some reservations, both of its purpose and of its contents.

Then the agreement itself, when ratified as an international treaty by both parliaments and endorsed by the two referendums implied that assent had been given by the negotiators.

Throughout the programme Trimble asserted that the blame for the impasse and the difficulties experienced in implementation lay mostly with Republicans who had failed to put a stop to their paramilitary activities and criminal funding operations.

He did, however, recognise that the political leaders of the Republicans had tried to take supporters and adherents generally towards a nonviolent pursuit of their movement's objectives and he appreciated the nature of the hurdles that lay in their way.

Trimble gave little attention to the fact that in the seven years since April 10th 1998 the DUP (including the UUP's dissidents like Jeffrey Donaldson who had joined them) which did not participate in the negotiations and had campaigned with the 'No' camp in the referendum in Northern Ireland, had only dipped a toe into implementation and had acted as a brake on his coming to terms with Republicans and Nationalists.

When taxed by Humphries about his flirting at times with William Craig's 'Vanguard' movement and with the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, at Orange parades including Drumcree (he admitted to his being a member of an Orange lodge) he skirted around it and the inference that this had weakened his standing as a partner in government within the Nationalist/Republican community.

He defended this behaviour to John Humphries by saying that he had to recognise that Ian Paisley had a strong following in Northern Ireland's Protestant community.

In his period of office and of party leadership it had been apparent that he could not really cross the bridge effectively enough to gain the trust of both communities and the smaller nonsectarian elements of both.

He had tried to hold position by moving towards the same sort of line as Paisley. However, in the last elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as in the General Election of May 2005 'Dr. No' (a nickname for the DUP leader) beat him decisively as the Unionist electorate generally turned to what they considered the 'real McCoy' rather than to its pale imitation.

This autumn it will be three years since the Assembly and Executive were suspended, a situation not relieved but more firmly entrenched when the DUP became the major Unionist party in its elected membership in the almost clean sweep of the Ulster Unionist Party's seats in Westminster, including the one previously held by Trimble himself.

Progress towards sharing power between the DUP and Sinn Féin (now the major Nationalist party) terminated at the point in December 2004 when Ian Paisley demanded photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning.

It is against this background that the long-awaited response of the IRA to Sinn Féin President Gerry Adam's call on them earlier this year to accept fully that the opportunity which the Good Friday Agreement had given of achieving their objectives by democratic and peaceful means has to be evaluated.

The IRA gave its response on Thursday 28th July in the form of a clear instruction to all its volunteers to cease all military action and to refrain from any activities other than those available under the Good Friday Agreement to pursue their objectives peacefully and democratically in conformity with the call made by the Sinn Féin President. This was to operate from 4.00 pm on that day. Weapons were to be dumped and the decommissioning of weapons in dumps would proceed as speedily as possible by means of the commission headed by General De Chastelain.

Discussions on radio, television and the media generally visualise that it will take a further six months before the way is cleared for the DUP and Sinn Féin to accept their joint role in the Executive Government in a reestablished Assembly.

However, the attitude of Paisley and his party raises doubts in my mind that this will be realised. He has publicly and during his meeting with Prime Minister Blair (4th August 2005) reiterated that it will be about two years after the IRA has proved that they have ceased all paramilitary activities including punishment beatings and associated incidents before he would agree to Sinn Féin and the DUP working together in government.

This period seems to chime with a period given by the Secretary of State for Northern ireland, Peter Hain, when he visualised that with a scaling down of military numbers, decommissioning by the IRA and Sinn Féin having accepted seats on the Policing Authority as well as a resumption of the Assembly the position would have been normalised within two years.

On the other hand, Gerry Adams, who also met the Prime Minister on the 4th of August, has called on him to restore the Assembly saying that he has complete confidence that the instructions given by IRA to its volunteers will be carried out. He has called on Ian Paisley to enter into dialogue with him so that the suspension can be lifted and the Assembly Government restored.

The present position of the two governments appears to be that following the next report of the Monitoring Commission in October they will wait a further report from them at the end of the year to verify how well the IRA instructions have been adhered to. Then, together with the progress on decommissioning of IRA weaponry as verified by De Chastelain, the British government would legislate to allow people who had been involved in certain activities to return under an amnesty to legally take up residence.
However, any resumption of the Assembly on the basis of the DUP holding the the post of First Minister and Sinn Féin that of Deputy First Minister rests solely on the agreement of Ian Paisley.

This appears to be the Plan A of the two governments but there is a clear need for a Plan B as in my view there is only a remote miniscule possibility of this being achieved. Throughout all events since the 1998 Agreement progress has been bedeviled by the struggle between the two main Unionist political parties and Ian Paisley is determined to resist sharing power with Sinn Féin and still wants a review of and a change in the text of the Agreement so as to exclude them.

In previous articles I have repeatedly said that the negative fundamentalist stance of 'Dr No' could be circumvented by the use of the alternative voting system (provided for in the Agreement) for the appointment of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.
Paisley is and has always been the main stumbling block in the way of progress and a common front has to be established to remove the obstruction.

The simplest way would be an internal coup in his own party. This would require courage, determination and leadership of a high order. Unfortunately all his subordinates are afraid of Paisley's influence and powerful position.

What is needed is an alliance of both governments, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, representatives of the smaller parties as well as a representative of the Ulster Unionist Party of some standing to agree to a change to the alternative voting system. They would need to have the courage to put the peaceful democratic future of the Six Counties at the top of the agenda and to face down the fulminations of the obdurate, fundamentalist and antediluvian dinosaur.

The threat of such action might be enough to galvanise those in his own party who are fed up with his leadership.

Failing the adoption of such a Plan B stalemate and the possibility of other revolts could reassert themselves. A return to the past looms.

This is the nature of the challenge facing the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Sir Reg Empy.

We shall see if "Cometh the hour, cometh the man" will kick in!

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran.

Samuel H. Boyd