Vol. 20 No. 15 · 30 July 1998

Marching Orders

Ronan Bennett on the new future of Northern Ireland

5533 words

The monolith’s full name was the Ulster Unionist Party, but its position as the dominant voice of Northern Irish loyalism was such that, for most of its history, those running in its interest needed only to declare themselves ‘the Unionist candidate’. The Party’s roots were in an all-Ireland Unionist coalition which came into being in the mid-1880s in response to the rise of Parnell’s Home Rule Party. Its early allies at Westminster were the Conservative Party and Liberal opponents of Gladstone; its allies at home were the sectarian Orange Order, and the Protestant landowning, professional and business fraternities. In the years before the outbreak of the First World War, the volatile and charismatic lawyer Edward Carson, together with his energetic deputy James Craig, mobilised Ulster Protestants of all classes to resist Home Rule. Carson, who had served as solicitor-general in Lord Salisbury’s Administration, colluded in the illegal shipment of 25,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition from Germany in April 1914 in order to arm the Ulster Volunteer Force and threaten civil war. The Larne gun-running incident, as it became known, demonstrated that Unionist leaders were no different from their Nationalist counterparts in that both were prepared to use constitutional means so long as these worked, and force if they did not.

The events of August 1914 led to the postponement both of Home Rule for Ireland and of any showdown between the British Government and the Ulster Unionists, but by the end of the war the popular mood in Ireland, stirred by trauma of Easter Week 1916, was overwhelmingly in favour of some form of independence: Sinn Fein won 73 of 105 seats in the General Election of 1918, the last held over the island of Ireland. The prospects for Unionism did not look good. However, by the end of the War of Independence three years later, Carson and Craig had succeeded in keeping six of the nine counties of Ulster out of the new Irish Free State. They did this partly by sticking, literally, to their guns, partly thanks to emerging divisions among Republicans, and partly because of enduring sympathy at Westminster for the Unionist cause. These were the Unionist Party’s glory days. To be sure, the monolith faced occasional challenges from among the ranks of its natural supporters. There was, for example, District Inspector J.W. Nixon, a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Orange Order, a religious fanatic who organised the notorious McMahon murders during the pogroms in Belfast in the early Twenties. Under cover of darkness, Nixon led a squad of masked policemen to the home of Owen McMahon, a prominent Catholic publican in North Belfast. They broke down the front door using a sledgehammer, entered, roused the family from their beds, gathered the male members, including an 11-year-old boy, in the front parlour, allowed a few minutes for prayer, and then began shooting: there were five immediate fatalities. The motive was wholly sectarian. Nixon was one of a small number of dissidents who, in the years of the Party’s ascendancy between 1921 and 1972, tried intermittently to outflank it from the right.

Although Nixon won election to Stormont as an independent Unionist, his personal following was never likely to disturb the monolith. With its built-in majority, the rout of its Republican and Nationalist enemies, and local councils gerrymandered or, where necessary, suppressed, and with its own parliament, government and prime minister at Stormont, the Unionist Party had pulled off a stunning political coup. In the new state there was no need for any flannel about toleration or respect for minority rights and traditions, let alone power-sharing. It was about having all of the cake. The border that had come into existence had no other purpose than to define the largest possible area of Ireland that the Unionist minority could control and defend. Craig became the first Stormont premier. Later, as Lord Craigavon, he famously announced: ‘I have always said that I am an Orangeman first and a politician and Member of Parliament afterwards . . . All I boast is that we have a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state.’

The monolith’s economic and social bases were diverse, often with contradictory interests: sectarianism was the cement. The Party ran into serious trouble only when its leaders were perceived to be moving away from the absolutist principles of its founding fathers. Thus Captain Terence O’Neill, prime minister from 1963 to 69, was reproved for visiting a Catholic school (Ballymoney, 1964) – he was the first Unionist prime minister to do so – and for receiving Sean Lemass, the Irish taoiseach, at Stormont. In reality, O’Neill was never much of a cake-sharer. His attitude to Catholics – and to working-class Protestants, for that matter – was patrician. ‘It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants,’ he once said, ‘that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants, because they will see neighbours with cars and televisions sets. They will refuse to have 18 children, but if a Roman Catholic is jobless and lives in the most ghastly hovel, he will rear eighteen children on national assistance.’ Among those Protestants to whom O’Neill failed to get through was the young Ian Paisley, then making a name for himself as an anti-Catholic rabble-rouser. Paisley, a personal friend of District Inspector Nixon, began by denouncing O’Neill as a sell-out and a Lundy. To many, Paisley was a figure of ridicule, but as the political crisis in the North deepened with the rise of the civil rights movement, it became clear that those who mocked his demagoguery and hysteria seriously underestimated his effect on Protestant voters.

O’Neill tried desperately to hold Unionism together, but he had no illusions about the task confronting him. ‘It is one thing for Mr Macmillan to talk of a wind of change blowing on another continent,’ he said, ‘but a very different matter when you have to initiate the change yourself and try to drag behind you a reactionary and reluctant party which has been in power since 1921. O’Neill failed both to reassure the Unionists and to deliver reform for the Nationalists, whose hopes he had raised but did not even begin to address. Civil rights gave way to armalites and Paisley continued to gain ground. O’Neill was forced to resign.

Paisley’s was the first significant and sustained assault on Unionism from within. It wasn’t the last. In the early Seventies, as the violence escalated, Unionist leaders came under pressure from Whitehall to compromise with moderate Nationalists. It was too much for a party steeped in the tradition of a Protestant state for a Protestant people: to share power with Catholics undermined the state’s rationale. The break-up of the monolith now began in earnest. The profusion of abbreviations used to designate the various Unionist parties and groupings makes this fragmentation plain. The trouble is that every Unionist claims ownership of the same number of key – sometimes almost sacred – words and so plainness soon gives way to confusion. Obviously, the founder of a new party will want the word ‘Unionist’ in its name. This gives us the first U. He – they have always been ‘hes’ – will often also want ‘Ulster’: it helps to reinforce one’s fundamentalist credentials; another option, second-best, slightly wishy-washy, is ‘Northern Ireland’. He may also be attracted to ‘United’ to point up the disarray of his enemies or to mask his own difficulties. ‘Official’ is useful for the old guard, ‘Independent’ good for those striking out, who also seem fond of ‘Progressive’, ‘Popular’ and ‘Democratic’; ‘Vanguard’ has a martial note that is appealing to some. Sometimes ‘Council’ is used for umbrella organisations, sometimes it’s ‘Coalition’, ‘League’, or ‘Movement’ – usually it’s just ‘Party’.

Various arrangements of these words produced, in rough chronological order, the DUP, the party founded by Paisley in 1971 to formalise opposition to the traitors of the UP, which for a time was also known as the OUP before it dropped the O and added an extra U to become the UUP. An early rival of Paisley’s on the right was the VUPP, a faintly Mosleyite organisation, formed after the collapse of Stormont in 1972 by William Craig, a hard-line former minister of home affairs, whose principal lieutenant was the young David Trimble. By 1976 the VUPP’s leader had softened to the extent of advocating a coalition with the Nationalist SDLP. This was too much for his deputy leader, Ernest Baird, who broke away to found the UUUM with the aim of promoting Unionist unity. Failing abjectly in this, the UUUM evolved into the UUUP. The UUUP should not be confused with UUUC, an earlier alliance of the DUP and VUPP, formed in 1974, to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement according to which Brian Faulkner, the then-UUP leader, agreed to share power with moderate Nationalists. Faulkner’s compromise was too much for the UUC – the governing body of the UUP. When Faulkner was ditched by the UUC, he took his followers in the UUP and went off to found the UPNI. James Kilfedder, another Unionist dissident who struck out alone, in 1980, founded the UPUP (pretty much a one-man band). Once the Loyalist paramilitaries went in for electoral politics we got the PUP and the UDP. They have been joined by the barrister-turned-politician, Robert McCartney who, along with Conor Cruise O’Brien, founded the UKUP (that rogue ‘K’ is for ‘Kingdom’), to oppose further UUP sell-outs and the mayhem of a united Ireland. In last month’s Assembly elections there were also candidates who variously described themselves as UU, UUU, UL, UIV and UI. There was also a man running under the banner of the UUUU. For the sake of something like completeness, there have also been at various times on the political scene a UIC, UIP, ULDP, UUAC and a VULC. (An important point: some splits were the result of personality clashes and petty rivalries, but generally speaking the important breakaways occur only when moderation shows its fangs. Error of this sort is guaranteed to be punished by a challenge from the fundamentalist wing of the party. The lesson for the leader is: share the cake at your peril.)

When David Trimble succeeded James Molyneaux as leader of the UUP in September 1995 the Party was still, in spite of the fissures and fallings-out, what it always had been: the largest single party in the north of Ireland. But it had an image problem: O’Neill’s verdict that it was reactionary and averse to change was still widely credited, particularly across the Irish Sea, where many of its old supporters inclined to impatience. Trimble had to improve the image and at the same time keep the Party happy. Not easy. Take the Party’s formal links with the Orange Order. These have existed since 1905; in addition, every leader of the Unionist Party has been a member of the Order; all but three Stormont cabinet ministers between 1921 and 1969 were members, as were 87 out of 95 Stormont backbenchers and junior ministers in the same period. How could a modern, forward-looking leader reconcile his claim to uphold the principles of political pluralism and religious tolerance with membership of an organisation founded two hundred years ago by a gang of sectarian thugs who retired to a pub to found their new organisation after the massacre of a rival gang of sectarian thugs? Pressed on this, Trimble replied that for goodness’ sake he didn’t even own a bowler hat. That was for the liberals. For the grassroots, by way of balance, he donned his sash. It is widely accepted that his victory in the leadership bid – he was considered the outsider – was immeasurably assisted by his performance at Drumcree the previous July when he linked hands with Ian Paisley to lead the contentious Orange march down the Nationalist Garvaghy Road. It was this gesture that persuaded hard-line doubters that Trimble wasn’t going to be another O’Neill or Faulkner, that he would remain staunch in their interests. The first IRA ceasefire was then entering its second year. Trimble declared that he did not believe that Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein were committed to achieving a settlement by exclusively peaceful means, and consistently played on the issue of the decommissioning of IRA arms as an excuse to prevent progress towards all-party talks, using his party’s leverage in the Commons to make sure that the Tory Government would not weaken in their resolve to keep Sinn Fein out of the process.

To British journalists, some of whom, behind the scenes, had been encouraging him to stand for the leadership, Trimble presented himself as a moderniser. He was an above-board democrat, not an operator like Craigavon, who relied on patronage and clientism. He was nothing like the crudely anti-Catholic Brookeborough; and unlike the secretive Molyneaux, he was open and collegiate. His admirers pronounced him the best man to take unionism into the modern political age: he was, they said, an experienced communicator who would be able to put unionism’s case forcibly, persuasively and sympathetically. In more liberal quarters, with the events at Drumcree that summer still fresh in the mind, there was a more mixed reaction. The sight of Trimble and Paisley holding hands down the Garvaghy Road had not been edifying. At the same time we were reminded that Trimble was a university law lecturer, ‘clever’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘a much more open, articulate and modern leader than the man whom he succeeds’. His decision to travel to Dublin shortly after his election to meet John Bruton reinforced the view that he was a Unionist of the new school. He has ‘briskly proved himself a true moderniser’, a Guardian leader concluded warmly. ‘The Molyneaux culture will seem extraordinarily remote and anachronistic.’ Word was abroad: when Paisley went, Trimble would be there to re-create the Unionist monolith.

In July 1996 during the tense stand-off of Drumcree II, however, Trimble blotted his copybook by allowing himself to be seen in conversation with Billy Wright, the Loyalist assassin who was himself later shot dead in prison in the most spectacular circumstances. Trimble’s cheerleaders at Westminster were not pleased, though he was doing no more than following the principle laid down by Carson and Craig: obey the law when it suits you, ignore it when it doesn’t. (To be fair, it’s a principle with an ardent cross-community following.) The Orangemen, who had gathered in defiance of a legal ban, were eventually permitted to walk their triumphalist walk when it became clear that if they were denied, Catholics elsewhere would suffer – a local Catholic taxi driver had already been killed by Wright’s organisation, the LVF. Unionist might had won through, and Nationalists were left to speculate on how things would have turned out had the boot been on the other foot. What would the British newspapers have written, Roy Hattersley asked,

if a Sinn Fein march had brushed aside the police and forced itself on a Protestant community in the way that the Orangemen forced themselves on Drumcree? Whether or not Adams had been seen on television arguing with the RUC, we would have been told that unless he denounced what had happened and those who organised the outrage, he must not be allowed to take part in the constitutional talks. But it seems that Trimble can support the march against the police one minute and then speak up for law and order the next.

Michael Mates, a proven friend of Unionism, rebuked Trimble, though not by name, when he said in a Commons debate that ‘those who have come to this House from time to time urging that the law be not broken owe it to us as well to ensure that they do not disobey laws of which they may disapprove, and that defiance of law and the police forces trying to enforce the law is equally unacceptable from whichever side of the community it comes.’ Trimble was in bad odour.

Not for long, however. Memories are short, and in any case events were moving on. Not that Trimble was doing much to help them. To the bitter end, he opposed talks with Sinn Fein and advocated the traditional policy of no compromise. The Party was contented. Until on Good Friday the British Government pulled the plug. Suddenly the man who was going to reunite Unionism found himself at the head of a party at a loss to deal with the politics of compromise. The examples of O’Neill and Faulkner must have flashed through his mind more than once during the hectic, crowded hours leading up to the Agreement. And with good reason: although the Party’s ruling body later voted its support, at least six of Trimble’s nine Parliamentary colleagues opposed his compromise, as did the UUP’s youth wing and many local constituency officers. Trimble was in trouble.

Clearly, Unionist opinion had to be mobilised behind the settlement if the Agreement was to survive. An unofficial ‘Save David’ campaign was launched by Tony Blair. Much was made of the personal trust that existed between the two men. There were photos galore, and reassurances aplenty. In an attempt to boost the Unionist ‘Yes’ vote in May’s referendum, Blair wrote a letter to Trimble, which the Unionist leader publicly described as a cast-iron assurance that Republican prisoners would not be released until the IRA had handed in its weapons. The letter was completely worthless. It is in direct contravention of the terms of the Agreement to which Trimble had put his name. Blair knew his ‘assurance’ was meaningless, so did Trimble, but for the purposes of the ‘Save David’ campaign, they pretended otherwise. Blair also intervened to suppress the report of the Parades Commission when it fell due for publication, on 23 April. It was suspected – rightly, as it turned out – that the Commission would order the re-routing of the Drumcree march away from the Garvaghy Road. Trimble was said to have contacted the Prime Minister, requesting that publication be postponed, and although he later denied this, he did admit he had passed on his concerns to a Labour backbencher who then contacted Blair’s office. ‘I think that there was a growing fear that the Parades Commission could have wrecked the referendum had it gone ahead with its preliminary view,’ David MacNarry, a leading Orangeman remarked. Also part of the ‘Save Dave’ campaign were warnings to Nationalists and Republicans to be flexible over the re-routing of other Orange marches, future cross-border bodies, and decommissioning. Not surprisingly, those whom Trimble had spent his entire political life trying to destroy did not feel very much inclined to take part in a rescue mission of this sort.

In the event there was a pro-Agreement majority among Unionist voters in the May referendum. Just. But no sooner had Trimble limped over this hurdle than he faced a second challenge: the Assembly elections scheduled for 25 June. By now, there was war within the party. One of the bitterest rows was between Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson, the UUP member for Lagan Valley. Donaldson had been seen as a ‘moderate’ and a protégé of Trimble’s: now he ditched his leader to side openly and noisily with Paisley, Bob McCartney and the various anti-Agreement groupings. Trimble refused to allow the young MP to stand for election to the Assembly in Donaldson’s Lagan Valley constituency. By the time the North went to the polls again – the second time in a matter of weeks, the fifth time in just over two years – there was no concealing the disarray.

Voting was under the Single Transferable Vote variant of the Proportional Representation system. Six candidates were to be elected from each of the 18 constituencies to give the Assembly a total of 108 members. It’s a complex system, much more so than the single list method, and – with as many as 22 candidates in any one constituency from a total of 32 parties, ranging from partisans of the old monolith itself to the yogic flyers of the Natural Law Party – it made the count a nightmare. This got underway on the Friday morning after the Thursday poll, and it was not completed until late on Saturday. However, at 10 p.m. on Thursday night an RTE exit poll predicted that Trimble’s UUP would be overtaken by John Hume’s SDLP. Exit polls in the North are nowhere near as sophisticated or reliable as they are elsewhere – they consistently underestimate the support for Sinn Fein, for example. But somehow this prediction did not seem all that unrealistic. Yet if accurate, it would mean that for the first time since the foundation of the Protestant state 77 years ago a Nationalist party had out-polled the UUP. The following morning the newspapers were speculating that John Hume, rather than David Trimble, would end up as first minister of the new executive. As the day wore on, it became clear that in terms of the popular vote the UUP was going to be beaten into second place. The pictures of Trimble on television showed him looking harassed, depressed.

Not so Jeffrey Donaldson. He gloated as his own Party’s vote in his own constituency was cut in half, exchanging insults over the airwaves with Ken Maginnis, the UUP’s director of elections, whom he accused of having ‘presided over one of the biggest electoral disasters for the Ulster Unionist Party in recent years’. Ian Paisley was in triumphalist mood. ‘Dublin is sick,’ he bellowed in characteristic fashion, ‘Mr Tony Blair is sick and the sickest man of all is David Trimble. He is sickened unto death because today the people of Northern Ireland wrote the obituary notice of Trimbleism.’ Another Trimble opponent, Bob McCartney of the anti-Agreement UKUP, observed that ‘the political giants of the referendum, Mr Taylor and Mr Trimble, are in some sort of disarray.’ In fact, though the result was the worst ever for the UUP, it was not quite as bad as Trimble’s opponents made out. True, the Party had been out-polled by the SDLP, and its percentage of the vote had fallen from 32.7 in the 1997 General Election to 21.3, but when all the results were in, it still remained the largest party in terms of seats (because of the spread of population, it takes more Nationalist voters to elect a representative than it does Unionist voters), with 29 seats in the new Assembly to the SDLP’s 25, the DUP’s 21 and Sinn Fein’s 18. Significantly, more than two-thirds of those elected support the Good Friday Agreement.

While the Unionists slugged it out, Nationalists and Republicans congratulated themselves on their respective successes. For John Hume the result was also a personal vindication. It wasn’t so long ago that Hume was the butt of abuse from all quarters for having entered into talks with Gerry Adams. Unionists accused him of being a ‘dupe’ of the IRA; Whitehall thought him at best misguided, at worst dangerous; Dublin was suspicious; there were rumblings of discontent within his own party – notably from his deputy, Seamus Mallon. But Hume kept at it, plugging away, insisting that the only way forward was through dialogue, that negotiation meant talking to your enemies, not your friends. Hume has a well-developed sense of his own worth and his contribution to Irish political life, and he is a prickly character who does not take criticism, constructive or otherwise, kindly. For a time the abuse seemed to be getting to him; he looked isolated and depressed, on the verge of collapse. After the first IRA ceasefire fell apart with the Canary Wharf bombing in February 1996, Hume’s enemies were writing him and his strategy off. The peace process, they said, was dead. Hume kept up the talks with Adams and marshalled himself for another effort. His reward was the second ceasefire, the Good Friday Agreement, and, last month, his Party’s best ever performance at the polls.

Gerry Adams, too, got his reward. There were those who, until only a few weeks ago, were convinced that Adams had no intention of compromising; that even if he did, he would not be able to persuade hard-liners in the Republican movement to follow suit. In fact, not only did Adams compromise: he compromised for a lot less than many people – including me – believed possible. Convinced that it can and will overtake the SDLP as the main Nationalist party, that the continuation of the armed struggle served no useful purpose, and that Unionism is in irreversible long-term decline, the Republican movement has clearly decided to pursue its goal of a United Ireland by electoral means. Adams has been the key figure in the shift from the physical force to the constitutional strategy. He has his opponents, but in terms of numbers, prestige and the support they command they are insignificant, and doomed to become more so. The ‘Continuity’ IRA, the ‘True’ IRA, the ‘Real’ IRA – or the ‘Surreal’ IRA, as Republicans like to call them – will never be able to mount anything like an effective campaign to bring down the Assembly, let alone force the British to withdraw.

In the old days, if Adams were to see off his opponents, he would have to produce results. In the early Nineties, Sir Patrick Mayhew was able to taunt Sinn Fein as being ‘a mere ten per cent party’ and not worth talking to; most commentators agreed, and the consensus was that while the Party had a solid core of loyal supporters it was unlikely to expand. Sinn Fein was ghetto-bound. In order for the constitutional argument to win out over those who advocated continuation of the war, the Party had to grow. In 1993, it took 12.4 per cent of the vote in council elections. As activist parties tend to do well in local elections, this was not yet proof of a lasting increase in Sinn Fein’s support. Three years later the Party received a 15.5 per cent share in the Forum elections, called by John Major and backed by David Trimble, as yet another way of delaying all-party talks. For the first time, Sinn Fein made serious inroads into the SDLP’s following among middle-class Catholic voters. Hume was rattled and the SDLP started to say that those who had transferred to Sinn Fein had ‘loaned’ their votes to protest against the intransigence of Trimble and Major. It was a good line, but exploded the following year in the May General Election, when Sinn Fein’s vote went up to 16.1 per cent. Adams was returned for West Belfast, humiliating the sitting SDLP member, Joe Hendron. The Party got its second MP, Martin McGuinness, who won Mid-Ulster, and narrowly missed a third in West Tyrone. A few weeks later, in council elections, Sinn Fein took 16.9 percent of the vote. In the Assembly elections it garnered 17.6 per cent: a mere 29,367 first preference votes separate Adams’s Sinn Fein from Trimble’s UUP. West of the Bann, the river that divides the north geographically, politically and demographically, Sinn Fein has emerged as the dominant party in the rural constituencies of Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Mid-Ulster and West Tyrone. In Mid-Ulster, Martin McGuinness saw the Party’s vote rise by 10 per cent. It is also gaining strength in Newry and Armagh, and in South Down, and is the largest single party in Belfast. It is an open secret that the Party expects to make further gains at the SDLP’s expense when John Hume retires (he is now 61, and looking considerably older).

Those who predicted that Adams would never be able to keep his Party together or prevent the IRA from going back to war have been confounded. A lot of this kind of commentary had to do with wishful thinking and overlooked the very real changes that were taking place within Sinn Fein; it missed completely, or chose not to accept as genuine, the way Adams, McGuinness and other leaders were preparing Republicans for compromise. Last year, for the first time, Sinn Fein leaders publicly told their supporters that the peace process was not going to deliver a united Ireland. Whether Adams knew, at the start of the process, that he might have to go that far, or whether he has become a prisoner of the process is difficult to determine. The point is that while he was playing down expectation, Trimble was doing the opposite. At every opportunity, fearful of that out-flanking movement from the sectarian right, he tried to out-Paisley Paisley. There would be, he insisted, no talks with ‘the men of violence’ (Billy Wright and other Loyalist paramilitaries excepted). There would be no concessions to Republicans. The inevitable result was that when compromise was eventually forced on him – a compromise that not only entailed talks with the men of violence, but having the men of violence in government – Trimble had a lot of explaining to do.

So it turns out the challenge is for Trimble, not for Adams. At this most critical time, with his fellow Orangemen camping at Drumcree IV, and their supporters burning Catholic churches and schools across the North, the UUP leader has a real opportunity to modernise and redefine Unionism. His enemies, those within his party who cannot countenance the thought of sharing the cake, are out in the open. They are talking openly of splitting. One option open to Trimble is to seize the initiative, expel them – given the extent of their disloyalty he would be well within his rights – and rebuild the party on a broader basis by appealing moderate Unionists and Alliance Party supporters. At Drumcree he could cut his ties with the Orange Order and create confidence among middle-class Catholics, whose economic enthusiasms lie in the east, not the south. He might then be able to give substance to the intriguing but so far attenuated notion of ‘civic Unionism’, championed by Norman Porter and cited occasionally by Trimble, and find himself in charge of a party that would not confuse the meanings of ‘opponent’ and ‘enemy’, would not feel itself doomed to be at permanent odds with almost half the population, and would not go into self-destructive paroxysms every time it failed to get its own way. The result might be a stable, enduring settlement commanding majority support among both communities. Is this likely?

Almost certainly not. Trimble has been praised for signing the Good Friday Agreement; it was, his supporters say, an act of courage given the history of cake-sharing leaders. But did he have any other option? The Labour Government had learned its own lessons from the fiasco of the first ceasefire: John Major’s mishandling of the Republican initiative proved that the only alternative to including Republicans in the political process was driving them back to a war without end. This, I have no doubt, will prove to be the sum of Major’s contribution to building peace in Ireland. Trimble’s contribution seems half-hearted, at least to date. He has given no indication that he has the confidence or the vision to embark on a thorough restructuring of Unionism. Since the Assembly elections, he has been keeping a low profile. He is the MP for Upper Bann, in which Drumcree lies. He has given no encouragement to the Orangemen gathered there to obey the legal ban on their proposed march down the Garvaghy Road. Since the Orange Order formally decided not to recognise the existence or legal authority of the Parades Commission, Trimble has done the same, referring to it only as ‘the so-called Parades Commission’. He follows doggedly in Craigavon’s footsteps: Orangeman first, MP and minister second.

His failure to distance himself from the marchers points up the contradiction in his position as first minister of the new executive. His actions may stem from heartfelt concerns, but in the spirit of the Good Friday compromise they are hardly appropriate, or even adroit. They will confirm the suspicions of Nationalists without winning over Unionist hard-liners who will never forgive him for compromising in the first place. Worryingly, Trimble continues to paint himself into corners, having, it seems, learned nothing from the failure of the attempt to exclude Sinn Fein from the political process. Thus he claimed that no member of Sinn Fein would be able to sit on the executive to be set up as part of the Agreement before the IRA decommissioned its weapons, and it took the leader of one of the Loyalist fringe groups, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party, to point out that the document Trimble signed up to on Good Friday put in place legally-binding structures which lay down that the posts of ministers in the new executive ‘will be allocated to parties . . . by reference to the number of seats each party has in the Assembly’ once they have taken the ‘Pledge of Office’. There is nothing in the Agreement or the Pledge of Office about being barred from the executive on any other grounds. In other words, short of tearing up the Agreement nothing can be done to prevent Sinn Fein members being appointed to the executive. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, or their nominees, will be entering government whatever the IRA does with its arms.

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