'First minister' Trimble bows to unionist No-men

Peace process

by David Granville

ULSTER UNIONIST leader and first minister in Northern Ireland's devolved asembly David Trimble finally bowed to the demands of the No-men and women of Ulster unionism at the end of September, throwing in his lot with those in his party who have consistently worked for the overthrow of the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

A meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on 23 September, the ninth cisis meeting held by the party since the signing of the agreement, adopted a wrecking compromise motion imposing a new condition on republicans -- and reimposing at least one old one -- as the price of the party's continued participation in the power-sharing executive.

In addition to setting a new deadline of 18 January for a final decision on whether the party would remain in the executive, Mr Trimble announced after the meeting that his ministers would, with immediate effect, cease to attend meetings of the north-south Ministerial Council with Sinn Fein ministers.

The body, which consists of ministers from both Dublin and Belfast, is an important area of all-Ireland co-operation under the Good Friday agreement.

Speaking about the UUP's position, David Trimble called for a complete end to 'republican' violence and threatened that the party would withdraw from the executive if republicans did not "complete the transition... to exclusively peaceful and democratic means".

Speaking at a joint press conference with Jeffrey Donaldson, Trimble claimed that he had been forced to adopt this course of action because he was "fed up" that unionist concerns about republican violence were being ignored.

In typical fashion, Trimble had nothing to say about the daily onslaught by loyalists against nationalist communities in Belfast and other parts of the north.

It became immediately clear that the UUP intends to use the issue of violence in exactly the way as its approach to decommissioning -- as a stock excuse for not carrying out the very reforms that would help to create a more equitable society in the six counties and play an important part in creating an atmosphere in which peaceful relations between the north's divided population and normal politics could develop.

Nothing short of total surrender -- including the handing over of all IRA weapons on unionist terms and evidence that republicans are prepared to hand embattled communities over to the protection of a police force in whom they have no trust -- will satisfy hardline unionism.

For Donaldson and his supporters the deadline could come and go a thousand times before their ever-changing conditions are met to their satisfaction. That is the name of the game, for their entire strategy of tying Trimble in to a more openly rejectionist line is predicated on the immposibility of republicans ever meeting their demands.

No one will be fooled by the party's stated aim, repeated once again after the Ulster Unionist Council meeting, of seeing the Good Friday agreement implemented in full. That is the last thing on Donaldson and Burnside's agenda.

These developments represent a victory for the out-and-out rejectionists with the UUP over more cautious leadership of David Trimble and his supporters, who have always believed that they could slow down, frustrate or renegotiate less palatable sections of the agreement.

Such signs of 'compromise' have consistently been rejected by Donaldson and Burnside, whose position has been buoyed in recent months by signs of growing grassroots opposition to the power-sharing deal within the unionist constituency.

To add to this there is also a growing fear in aa wings of the party that it could be overtaken at the next assembly elections by Paisley's consistently anti-agreement DUP.

Donaldson's and co's war of attrition appears finally to have paid off -- at least in the short term.

However, while mainstream republicans, nationalists and the Dublin government have understandably voiced their displeasure at the Ulster Unionist's move, arguably the biggest challenge ahead lies for the British government whose devolutionary power-sharing solution to the conflict has taken a severe hit below the waterline.

The Dublin government will also be called upon to show some backbone -- especially as the Ulster Unionists have potentially presented the 26-county state with another constitutional crisis over the cross-border bodies set up under the terms of the agreement.

A week before the UUP crisis meeting Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams accused the British prime minister Tony Blair of complacency, short-termism and of being in danger of "losing vision" concerning the implementation of the Good Friday deal

“The last two years should have been about building on the Good Friday agreement. It should have been about delivering change. John Reid has failed to do this.” Instead, the process had fallen into “a trough”, said Adams. “Over the last two years unionists have increasingly behaved as if they believe they can stop the change promised in the Good Friday agreement.

This had included repeated threats to the political institutions alongside attempts to block progress on equality, human rights, criminal justice, policing, the all-Ireland agenda and a whole range of other crucial issues.

Whatever other excuses may be offered, said Adams, the Ulster Unionist Council decision was evidence that political unionism had not yet risen to the challenge presented by the need for change.

"In the absence of consistent, constant and positive leadership, unionism is trying to delay, dilute or prevent change. This cannot be tolerated."

Adams said that he would be seeking meetings with both governments, with Mr Trimble and with other parties in the weeks following the Ulster Unionist move.

"The two governments need to fill the vacuum that has developed. We have seen over the summer how such vacuums are exploited by anti-agreement elements andhow sectarian violence has been switched on and off to undermine public confidence," he said.

"There is no alternative tp the Good Friday agreement and to the process of change it requires. Neither is there any excuse for the British government to continue to pander to unionism."

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-04 14:37:00.
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