Don't underestimate Mr Trimble, the man who will disarm the IRA

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IF YOU had predicted five, let alone ten, years ago that the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party would write to Amnesty International urging them to visit Northern Ireland, you would have been mad. By doing just that this week, David Trimble has shown, not for the first time, that he is a politician who is unwilling to be imprisoned by his party's history.

Amnesty has long had a place in the demonology of Ulster Unionism. Its reports on the methods used by the police and Army in fighting terrorism in the last 20 years were frequently written off as, at best, naive, or, at worst, crypto-nationalist propaganda.

Trimble's exhortation to Amnesty to investigate punishment beatings by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries is easy to dismiss as a tactic, which it partly is, to expose the continuing lawlessness of the IRA in a period of ceasefire. In fact, it is a rather potent symbol of something bigger. Conventional mainland liberal wisdom - of the kind that embraces agencies such as Amnesty without hesitation - has tended, equally without hesitation, to see Ulster Unionism as the problem rather than part of the solution in Northern Ireland. It is time to review some of those assumptions, just as it is time to review the question of who is doing most to undermine human rights on the streets of Derry and Belfast.

From a distance, of course, it looks as though Trimble is up to Unionism's old tricks, making impossibilist demands on a republican leadership for a handover of arms it cannot deliver. He will, it is now certain, refuse to sit on the planned Northern Ireland Executive with Sinn Fein, to which powers are due to be transferred in six weeks' time, unless decommissioning of arms begins before then. He is threatening to "park" the peace process and to seek the review provided for in the Good Friday agreement for such an outcome. Is this not just the same old politics of "no surrender" once again? Not necessarily.

The Dublin government, for one, has not yet joined the public clamour for Trimble to back down, a point made in a recent eloquent Irish Times editorial, which asserted that "he has shown remarkable flexibility and openness as to how and when the IRA might show its commitment to exclusively political methods" and that "there has been no reciprocation on the part of Sinn Fein or the IRA". At considerable political risk to himself, Trimble has come a long way since the beginning of the peace process.

Some of those who understand the Provisional IRA much better than I do, believe that the Republicans have misread Trimble, thinking that he would go the way of all his predecessors and say no at a much earlier point to the peace process, and that he would never be able to withstand the pressure within his own ranks to pull out, leaving nationalism alone occupying the moral high ground. If so, they were wrong on both counts. Trimble took risks to stay in the talks. He is still there, and the moral authority is no longer cleaving quite as securely to the republicans as some of them may have hoped.

On one reading, the future may not be quite as desperately bleak as it looks. Under one of several possible scenarios, the deadlock would continue until the deadline of 10 March.

The "parking" of the process would then be followed by several days of frenetic activity in Washington over the St Patrick's Day period in which President Clinton, and perhaps the SDLP, would bring irresistible pressure on the republicans to decommission sufficient armaments to satisfy Trimble that he can honourably allow the new executive to assume its powers.

This process has some historical precedent. Rather as de Valera formally, and against all his instincts, swore allegiance to the British crown in 1927 so that his republican Fianna Fail party could take its seats in the Irish Parliament and take power, so Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will finally lift the taboo on handing over IRA arms in order to sit at the Cabinet table. There are even those who believe that the republican leadership may slowly be coming to realise that this may be the outcome, and that the brutal murder of the ex-IRA man Eamon Collins in Newry last month was part of a grisly IRA-sanctioned deck-clearing operation to discourage others who may, once a settlement is reached, be tempted to follow Collins's example by lifting the lid on some of its murky history over the past 20 years.

That may be too optimistic. The IRA may not agree even to the minimum decommissioning required to allow the process, now in its moment of maximum danger, to advance; the next few weeks will be among the most decisive for Northern Ireland's future.

But, whatever the outcome, it no longer looks anything like as easy to write Trimble off as the obstacle to a long-term settlement in Northern Ireland. If the IRA refuses to decommission, while the British Government bends over backwards, not least by controversial prisoner releases, to keep the process alive, then it is becoming increasingly clear that Trimble may still emerge the more open-minded, even pluralist, politician. His approach to Amnesty International and to Human Rights Watch in New York about the punishment beatings, is a small but significant illustration of that.

There are those who succumb to the temptation of thinking that somehow the punishment squads are an acceptable price for political progress. That does not appear to have been the view of Maureen Kearney, a lifelong republican and the 65-year-old mother of Andrew Kearney, who bled to death after being shot in the legs in the aftermath of an argument over a game of cards with a prominent IRA man. Mrs Kearney confronted the man who ordered the shooting, and reportedly sent the bill to Sinn Fein for her son's funeral.

But that is not the only point. The approach to Amnesty was made rather swiftly after a Sunday newspaper editorial made the suggestion; Harry Barnes, the Labour MP whose New Dialogue organisation has shown a commendable open-mindedness towards all sections of opinion in Northern Ireland, has worked with the non-sectarian Families Against Intimidation and Terror in Belfast since 1991. He has long talked of a "human rights emergency" in the province, and got up an Early Day Motion on the subject. Trimble, independently, made the decisive overture.

It is a reminder, of course, that it is no longer an imperialist British Government which stands in the way of human rights in Northern Ireland. But it is also, equally significantly, another modest sign that beneath the often rebarbative exterior of Northern Ireland's First Minister there is an imaginative politician willing, if he is allowed, to break out of the strait-jacket of his party's die-hard and dogmatic culture. The old certainties are slowly changing in Northern Ireland; fashionable perceptions in the mainland, not least on the left, need to change with them.