It's time for the Unionists to surrender a little bit of ground

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The Independent Culture
ONCE AGAIN, the ghosts of Northern Ireland's past hang heavily over the fresh efforts of two governments to break yet another impasse. Once again, the resonant cries of "no surrender" and "betrayal" echo faintly but unmistakably across quarter of a century. The ghost-in-chief for the moment is that of Brian Faulkner, who as leader of the Ulster Unionists signed up in December 1973 to the Sunningdale agreement, the last serious and detailed venture in political circle-squaring before last year's Good Friday talks nearly 25 years later.

For all his clarity of mind, Faulkner deluded himself at the end of Sunningdale that he had won a decisive Unionist victory, in which the concessions to cross border co-operation in the form of a Council of Ireland would be wholly outweighed by a power-sharing assembly and executive in which Unionists would dominate and of which he would himself be chief executive. Back in Belfast Loyalist opinion saw it quite differently. Within five months all his dreams had been shattered; he'd lost the leadership of his party; he and his supporters failed to win a single seat in the 1974 General Election, and the brief attempt to revive devolved democracy in Northern Ireland collapsed under the weight of the Ulster Workers' Strike.

It is worth recalling that tragic saga if only to see it for what it was and what it was not. The memory of the late Mr Faulkner is usually invoked these days as a cautionary tale of what will happen if the governments in London and Dublin push David Trimble too far. And, at least, half-rightly so. A settlement on the issue of decommissioning which forces the ousting of Mr Trimble by his more militant and rejectionist party colleagues is no settlement at all, since it is virtually certain that any successor will be more tribal, less imaginative, and less imbued with a vision of a civic future for Northern Ireland than he is.

The reason that Mr Trimble is so pivotal to the talks in Belfast today and tomorrow is that he is of all the central figures on the the Unionist side by far the greatest ally the peace-seeking majority in Northern Ireland, and, therefore, the two governments, have in their quest for a settlement. If Mr Trimble makes the error that Brian Faulkner did and sacrifices his leadership simply to conclude a deal that looks good on paper, the deal will collapse - and with it Mr Trimble's leadership - before the ink is dry.

Every time the Republicans call on Mr Trimble, as Martin McGuiness did on Sunday, to show "leadership" by facing down his own dissidents, it is worth remembering the grim consequences of his blindly following that advice. While Mr McGuiness might fear a dangerous split in the Republican movement if he were to agree to a disarmament gesture by the IRA ahead of the formation of the new executive, Mr Trimble would simply be signing his political death warrant if he were to run too far ahead of his own party's collective opinion by ignoring that issue.

However, that is only part of the story. For the differences between the circumstances of the Faulkner debacle and the present negotiations in Belfast are as striking as the parallels. At the weekend Mr Trimble demonstrated his ambition for a settlement by suggesting that there would be something to negotiate about if Sinn Fein were to extract a pledge from the IRA that they would disarm by the date specified in the Good Friday agreement - May 2000. The immediate reaction from Sinn Fein was not encouraging; they could do no more, came the reply, than the curmudgeonly letter of agreement required, namely to use "any influence they may have" to procure such an outcome.

It still remains possible that Mr Trimble cannot be satisfied. But it was real movement, given that Mr Trimble had earlier insisted on some decommissioning ahead of the new executive being formed. Movement, moreover, which appeared too much for some of those in his party who still insisted on the original precondition.

But the resistance of the Ulster Unionist dissidents to such a concession will need to be judged, and if it comes to it, judged harshly, against the gains Unionism has made as a result of the Good Friday agreement. Of course the Nationalists - including Republicans - also made gains; a minority place for Sinn Fein on the new executive; "parity of esteem" for the two traditions in Northern Ireland; and an apparatus for cross border co-operation. But it cannot be repeated too often how far Unionism has travelled since the doomed Sunningdale agreement.

Perhaps victory is not quite the right word. But for the first time in its history Sinn Fein, among all the parties, signed up to the proposition that ... "the present wish of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union ... and that it would be wrong to make any change to the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people".

Why rehearse these well worn-words yet again? Partly to remind those Unionists preparing to cry "no surrender" that surrender is precisely not what they are being asked to do. That applies on the IRA side, too, of course. The Republican idea that to hand over arms - arms, which as Tony Blair pointed out in his candid statement last week, could anyway be replaced if peace collapsed - constitutes defeat, is a self-serving myth. Moreover, it is wholly reasonable, in the decommissioning argument, for Mr Trimble to set limits beyond which he will not go. It is right to demand that Sinn Fein be excluded from the executive if by May 2000 the decommissioning deadline is not met. Mr Trimble's task has not been made any easier by last night's ban on the Drumcree march. But the Unionists will also be sacrificing tangible and historic consolidation of their position if they seek to prevent Mr Trimble executing the kind of honourable formula he hinted at during the weekend.

In a persuasive article yesterday David Ervine of the Loyalist and paramilitary- linked Progressive Unionist Party outlined the bleak future Unionism could by contrast expect if the talks are allowed to founder on the demand for prior decommissioning tomorrow: closer co-operation by the British and Irish governments over the heads of the Northern Ireland majority; increasing disenchantment of mainland Britain with Northern Ireland Unionists; a "growing head of steam" for old-style nationalism backed by Dublin.

It may be too much to suggest, as one frustrated British minister - not in the Northern Ireland Office - privately did last week, that "the Unionists have won. They're too stupid to see it, and the Republicans are too clever to admit it." But to listen to some of the hardliners looming behind Mr Trimble, like Julius Caesar's assasins, there is an inescapable element of truth in the remark.

Mr Trimble himself is anything but stupid. He surely understands what is at risk. The tormentors on his own side should now give him the space to preserve it.