Simply folly to waive the rules

Journalist and author Kevin Toolis sets out a few basic rules for the conduct of political affairs in the north which unionist politicians and British government ministers alike would do well to heed

You could almost feel sorry for Tony Blair. You win a second historic election, decimate all opposition within the cabinet, award yourself a big pay rise, clear the decks and prepare for government and the first 'pleading' delegation over the Downing Street threshold is none other than David Trimble.

Blair must be sick of the sight of that man and his continual pleas for support in the face of yet another self-inflicted 'knife-edge' ultimatum.

Before we reach the next 'deadline' in the peace process it's worth restating a few of the basic rules.

One of the most important is that the IRA does not respond to internal unionist political crises. Set a date, 1 July, and they will adamantly not move an inch before October, if they ever move at all.

Nothing was going to happen on the republican front before 1 July and therefore Trimble was guaranteed to resign. Rule one is that ultimatums are a bad, bad way of playing your political hand.

Rule two is that David Trimble, and his survival/demise, is not the peace process. Trimble may fall, but nothing will significantly change. Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and the IRA army council are not negotiating with David Trimble about the future of Ireland. They are negotiating with the representatives of the unionist community.

Rule three is that both newspapers and politicians have a sell-by date and maybe Trimble has reached his.

Trimble's resignation stunt MkII -- MkI was May 2000 when the still-born assembly was only resurrected after heroic interpretations of the word 'decommissioning' by Dublin and Whitehall after the same Trimble stunt -- is the product of political weakness within a divided unionist camp.

He has failed, as a political leader, to engage his own community in debate about the limitations of unionist power. Instead he has acted out an old script where a unionist leader's tantrum made Whitehall pay heed -- hence the suicidal letter of resignation.

It's not all his fault. In the absence of meaningful contact with the outside world, elections in unionism are still little more than auctions of intransigence. "Elect me and I promise I'll be twice as intransigent as my opponent."

They deliver protest votes by the bucket load, and so-called mandates, to demagogues like Ian Paisley and his grim-faced followers.

Rule four is more tricky and more serious: no British government can save Ulster's Protestants from a destructive future of their own creation. If Ulster's Protestants are hell-bent on destroying the Good Friday agreement by voting for Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party then they are going to succeed. And no power of the Crown will stop them.

That is not what is happening. Most Protestants, even the DUP leadership, want the assembly to go on. They love Stormont, the ministerial cars, the salaries and their British taxpayer-paid sense of self importance.

But the unionist 'refuseniks' want to have it on their terms. They don't want to face up to the political reality that they are just players, not the player, in the Irish peace process. They think that they can have that Stormont cake and eat it alone by themselves. And they make the fatal mistake of believing that they are important.

As Tony Blair knows, political power can be given and it can be taken away. The British public has a big stake in the Irish peace process and very little stake in Paisley and co. and those who vote for them.

We cannot temporise with that Orange monster we can only destroy it.

Tony Blair, on our behalf, must restate that there will be no renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement either with or without Trimble. He must show those in Ulster who are opposed to meaningful negotiations, just how unimportant little men in Ulster can be. He must take a rod to their backs and show them the road to peace.

Kevin Toolis is the author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within the IRA's Soul published by Picador in paperback at £6.99. The above is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in The Guardian.

August/September 2001

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