Can Trimble find the courage to take a big risk for peace?

If he wrecks the peace process many people will question if we should continue to prop up Ulster

UNTIL NOW, I have always been optimistic that Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam would be able to deliver a settlement in Northern Ireland on the basis that the momentum of peace would carry the process forward with sufficient force to override the rejectionists in both the Nationalist and Unionist camps. I based this assessment on two individuals, the first of whom was Gerry Adams.

Adams's most obvious contribution to the peace process was to see in the hunger strikes of the early Eighties that politics was key to unlocking the deadlock. He began the long transition from a Republican movement mainly committed to armed struggle to one that slowly accepted the importance of the ballot box, beginning with Northern Ireland elections and finally extending even to an acceptance of the European elections.

But Adams made a much more important contribution to leading and educating the Nationalist community. When I first met him in 1983 the position was that there could be an immediate cease-fire provided Britain agreed to withdraw from Ireland within two years. By the late Eighties that position had changed to a five-year withdrawal. But Sinn Fein's great historic shift came with their eventual acceptance that there would be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland other than by a democratic vote of all its people.

I, therefore, had no doubt that once the British Government got into serious negotiations, Adams would use all his persuasive abilities to carry the Republican community forward to accepting compromises with both the British government and the Unionist parties.

The second vital player in delivering peace in Northern Ireland was not immediately apparent back in the Eighties. The Unionist parties had to throw up someone of sufficient stature and courage to be able to lead the Unionist community to come to terms with the new political reality.

For a long while the only person who could possibly have done this was Ian Paisley. As the hardest of the hard-liners he had built an impressive personal following in the Unionist community and consistently topped the poll in the European elections. Sadly, Ian Paisley was never prepared to take a risk for peace, and used his position to loudly undermine anybody else who looked like they might be thinking of doing so.

David Trimble - although he was not so well known to the wider public - had an equally hard-line reputation among Loyalist activists. He seized the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party from less extreme colleagues by joining forces with Paisley to smash through the Nationalist community along the Garvaghy Road. This dramatic act of intimidation at Drumcree cleared the path to lead his party, but also produced the first Unionist leader capable of standing up to Paisley.

No one was surprised, therefore, to find that Trimble was prepared to cash in some of his Loyalist brownie points in order to reach a deal with Tony Blair and the Nationalist parties at the Easter talks just over a year ago. The obvious logic of Trimble's position was to secure a clear majority amongst the Unionist electorate for the ratification of the Easter accord. But, whatever may have been Trimble's intentions, he only secured a narrow majority in the Unionist community over Paisley's rejectionists. Since that time Trimble has seemed to lose confidence that he can secure a peace deal and survive, and the result has been a year of delay which has brought the process near to collapse.

In all his public and private comments Gerry Adams has always made clear from the very beginning of this process that he could not deliver the decommissioning of Republican weapons before the new Northern Ireland Executive takes office. Whether he was talking privately to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, or addressing MPs at a meeting in the House of Commons, he always emphasised that decommissioning as a precondition for establishing the Executive would be seen by the IRA as a surrender. But Adams was also at pains to point out that once the Executive had been established "all things are possible".

None of this should be surprising as it is clearly spelt out in the peace agreement signed by Trimble and Adams, as well as by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, that decommissioning was not a precondition to the establishing of the executive. Indeed, there is a separate decommissioning process. Adams has gone as far as he can to make it clear that decommissioning would begin very rapidly once the executive was functioning. Even the previous hard-line head of the RUC, Sir John Herman, publicly spelt out that decommissioning was not an issue that worried the RUC and was a red herring.

Why, then, has David Trimble allowed these delays which have served only to allow critics of the peace process to build their strength and slowly grind down Loyalist support for the deal?

Among Loyalists there has been an internal debate that draws on the collapse of apartheid in South Africa. Many Unionists strongly identify with the white Afrikaners with whom they share a particularly rigid strand of Protestant faith. Unionists have watched with alarm as South Africa has swept forward to embrace modern democratic values which have rapidly marginalised the old white power elite.

The fear in the most backward elements of Unionism is that all the ghastly apparatus of Loyalism with its Orange lodges and systematic discrimination against Catholics could be swept away within a few years if the peace process goes ahead. They recognise that their way of life can only be sustained if Northern Ireland remains frozen in the past. They are prepared to accept a few hundred or even a few thousand deaths a year if that is the price to be paid to maintain the old sectarian statelet of Northern Ireland.

David Trimble must realise that if he succeeds in wrecking the peace process there will be many in Britain who question whether we should continue to prop up the Northern Ireland statelet with the lives of British soldiers and financial subsidies.

If Trimble is not prepared to take a risk for peace, then Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam have only one option - to establish the Northern Ireland executive and appeal over the head of Trimble directly to the hundreds of thousands of Unionists who are prepared to move forward into the 21st century.

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