Peace in Ulster may be on course but the champagne is still on ice

Trimble said the other day that he had thought of taking beta- blockers to help himself cope with the strain
Click to follow
THE TROUBLE with the assembly election result is the same as last month's referendum on the Good Friday agreement: it was historic without being definitive. Perhaps that's the way it will always be, since this is a process and a long one at that. We never do get to the end of history, above all of Irish history.

In any event, the election was another of those steps forward, another of those increments that mark real progress but which never quite set the champagne corks popping in Belfast. Northern Ireland has very little culture of celebration, puritanically considering it unseemly and superstitiously believing it to be tempting fate.

The main thing, probably, is that the peace process remains on course and has come a long distance since the Good Friday agreement. It chalked up 71 per cent support in the referendum and it has now delivered an assembly in which more than three-quarters of its members approve of the agreement, either enthusiastically or tentatively.

Concern centres on the state of play within Unionism, which may be in the process of tearing itself apart. All the other elements are solidly, and indeed fervently, in favour of the new deal offered by the Good Friday accord: Irish nationalism north and south, London, Washington and the rest of the world all regard it as Northern Ireland's political salvation and the best hope for the future.

But the agreement rests on several mutually dependent props and its success depends on all of them taking the strain. Unionism is not solid; if anything it is in a state of barely suppressed trauma, split down the middle. Half the Unionists are opposed to the deal either in whole or in part and have now twice voted against it, first in the referendum and again in last week's election.

The pro-agreement Unionists tend to accept the accord reluctantly rather than embrace it wholeheartedly; voting for it was an effort requiring many of their basic instincts to be suppressed. Many Unionist voters, and the politicians they have just elected, view it as closer to a last resort than to a golden opportunity.

David Trimble was applauded for last week's speech in which, critics said, he showed for the first time some sense of vision about Northern Ireland's future and how its people might live together as neighbours. But he said it only once; such a bold new message needs repetition and emphasis in order to sink in and it has yet to do so.

The assembly will face many crises, the first of which may be when First Minister Trimble is required to accept Messrs Adams and McGuinness as members of his new ruling executive. There will be Paisleyite pyrotechnics but there will also be much heartsearching, and possibly rebellion, within Ulster Unionist ranks.

Much will depend on the character, fortitude and political skills of Mr Trimble. Although he has been around in politics a long time he is relatively inexperienced at senior levels, having been an MP for only eight years and party leader for just three.

Now he faces the Rev Ian Paisley, with all his decades of guile and cunning and the negative but highly effective skills that have helped dispatch more than one of Mr Trimble's predecessors to premature political retirement. By the time Mr Trimble was aged 27, Mr Paisley had founded his own party and his own church, been elected to Stormont and Westminster and been to jail a couple of times for his beliefs.

You can call him a dinosaur, say that he is 72 years old and point out that he has never managed to become number one in Unionism, but the fact is that he speaks for a solid one-third of Ulster Protestants. You can say he exaggerates their underlying fears but the fact is that those fears are real enough and many Unionists agree with him that the best tack is obstinate resistance rather than mutual accommodation.

We may now see the reappearance of the recurring themes of Paisley's three decades in politics, which is the formation of tactical alliances with dissident elements from the Ulster Unionist party. The conditions look right, for Mr Trimble has lost the allegiance of six of his 10 MPs.

One of these, his heir-apparent Jeffrey Donaldson, broke ranks on Good Friday. He started out maintaining that his opposition was based on his objections to the agreement and not to the party leadership. This high- minded stand, however, degenerated on Friday into televised slanging-matches with Trimble supporters.

The gloves having come off, we may now see the emergence of a new anti- Trimble Unionist coalition doing battle not only in the assembly itself but at Westminster and indeed throughout the structure of the Unionist party. That battle may also be fought on the streets, in what could be a difficult Orange marching season.

How well equipped is Mr Trimble to cope with all this? Sometimes he wins the battles within the Unionist family, sometimes not. To lose one MP may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose half-a-dozen might be deemed carelessness. He has, however, done well in his assembly team. It was first thought that many of his back-benchers might be anti-agreement but he has successfully ensured that nearly all of them are on his side.

Somehow, Mr Trimble managed simultaneously to win and lose this election. As winner of the largest number of seats he will become First Minister in the assembly but a delve into the statistics shows that it was the lowest-ever vote for his party, which for the first time ever was overtaken by a nationalist grouping, and Ian Paisley's party was only three per cent short of the Trimble total.

Mr Trimble has thus delivered enough seats to make the assembly workable but too few to instil confidence that the new arrangements are definitely going to last. He himself admits with slightly endearing frankness to feeling the pressure, telling the Belfast Telegraph the other day that he had thought of taking beta-blockers to help himself cope with the strain of it all.

In the old days, nationalists might have taken some pleasure in his difficulties, reckoning that Unionism's extremity could be nationalism's opportunity. But in the emerging new order of things, the fortunes of all pro-agreement elements - even Sinn Fein - are to a greater or lesser extent bound up with the fortunes of the Unionist leader.

Even beginning to think in these terms is an important sign of the developing new civil society struggling to come into existence alongside the old tribal patterns. In the meantime there is still plenty of tribalism and ill-feeling out there, still plenty of people hoping to exploit the assembly and the marches to produce rancour rather than reconciliation.

This helps explain the lack of celebration and the prevailing sense that, though violence has fallen sharply and progress is being made, it would be rash to open that champagne just yet. Once again a milestone has been passed and once again it was momentous but not conclusive.