The champagne corks, like the guns, remain silent

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The Independent Culture
SO WHY haven't supporters of the Good Friday Agreement been up all night, leaping into fountains and deliriously celebrating David Trimble's famous victory in the Ulster Unionist Council? Why has the sound of gunfire not been replaced by the pop of champagne corks?

The answer to those looking in vain for euphoria is, to use words which have appeared before on these pages, that the outcome was historic without being definitive, momentous but not decisive. The peace process has taken a giant step forward, but many more obstacles lie ahead; and while it is more likely than not that it will overcome them, there can be no absolute confidence that it will.

Thus the champagne corks, like most of the guns, are silent and likely to remain so. Indeed it is difficult to imagine any point in the foreseeable future at which the new political institutions can confidently be declared to be safe and secure.

One of the architects of the peace process who was asked whether it would work replied: "We should know within ten years." That was two years ago. It seems possible that he may be right in his timescale, for, like life itself, the process looks destined to be one damned thing after another. The next damned thing crops up today, when the Belfast assembly meets to appoint the new power-sharing executive that is to govern Northern Ireland. Perhaps the new executive will be born today and perhaps it won't, for there are vital procedural matters to be cleared up first.

David Trimble has got his proposal past his party's Council, but in the process he has lost some members of his assembly party. It is not yet clear how many he will be unable to rely on, but it looks like being at least half a dozen. This means he cannot rely on commanding the support of 50 per cent of Unionists in the assembly. Those rejectionists could turn into the Belfast equivalent of John Major's "bastards". Vital assembly votes could turn into the sort of cliff-hangers seen in the final days of John Major's government, with energy expended not on running the country but on coaxing doubters into the right lobby.

The Rev Ian Paisley, who is a master not just of wrecking rhetoric but of procedural negativity, will have a strong presence in the assembly. He has promised to harry and harass Trimble, and no one has any doubt about his capacity to do so. The pro-agreement parties must therefore win an important early battle to ensure that Paisley does not manage, as Parnell did in the Commons in the last century, to hold up assembly business and poison the atmosphere. The outside world might regard Paisley as an anachronism, but he remains a powerful force. He already has the scalps of a number of Unionist leaders on his belt, and is keen to add Trimble's locks to his trophies.

Beyond all this, a crisis has been pencilled in for February, when Trimble has committed himself to go back to the Ulster Unionist Council for "a final decision" on whether to stay in government with Sinn Fein. The clear understanding of Council members is that, if the IRA hasn't decommissioned by then, Unionists will leave the executive.

Some people believe that the IRA will have decommissioned something by then; some believe that they won't have; most are not sure. The view of the British and Irish governments is that by February both Unionists and republicans will be so keen to preserve the executive that they will show unprecedented flexibility and overcome that crisis together.

The trouble is that the last-minute assurances that Trimble offered the Council on Saturday arguably make decommissioning less likely to happen. Sinn Fein has for years stuck to the line that if the IRA ever does decommission, it will only do so on a voluntary basis and not in response to ultimatums. Some republicans are interpreting Trimble's stance on Saturday as a threat to collapse the executive unless there is movement on the guns - what might be called a post-dated precondition. If this is maintained, then February is going to produce another draining round of intense negotiations in which the fate of the new executive will once again be in doubt.

This uncertainty may perhaps lessen as and when the next couple of crises are successfully weathered, and as the new system beds in. It is not going to disappear entirely, however, because of the uncertainties which the two communities in Northern Ireland continue to harbour about each other.

The IRA might decommission some weapons in the near future: it could happen. What is not conceivable, however, is that it would decommission all of them. A variety of armed loyalist groups are still out there, some of them still petrol-bombing Catholic homes, and paramilitary realpolitik dictates that the IRA will not go naked into the conference chamber. This fact will in itself keep Unionist suspicions alive.

There is, in any event, a strong instinct among many Protestants towards segregation and an almost apartheid society, which has not been eroded by the peace process. A lot of Unionists simply don't want a deal. The bottom line is that while nearly every nationalist reckons that the peace process is a good idea, Unionism remains deeply and dangerously divided.

It is true that civic society, the great and the good including senior business and church figures, is solidly for the Good Friday Agreement. Within the Unionist party, however, the picture is different. Six of its 10 MPs are anti-agreement. Trimble's deputy John Taylor is unpredictable; on Wednesday he was against the deal; on Saturday morning he was for it; on Saturday afternoon he chose not to speak at the Council meeting. The Council vote, which was 480 to 349 in favour, must be compared with its vote last year for the Agreement, which it endorsed by 540 to 210. This represents a significant draining of support away from the idea of accommodation. And that 58 per cent was achieved at the cost of reinstating the condition that decommissioning happen in the next few months.

In last year's assembly elections Trimble won 22 per cent and Paisley 18 per cent. The fact that Paisley's people, plus 42 per cent of the Council, are against the deal strongly suggests that more than half of the Protestants are firmly against this deal.

The paradox is that David Trimble has scored a momentous victory in getting his proposals through his party. But the fact remains that he does not at this moment command a majority within the assembly or indeed within the Ulster Protestant community as a whole.

That community has had time to take a long hard look at the Agreement, and has not yet learnt to love it. The fact that Unionist opponents of the Agreement have yet to come up with a coherent alternative is neither here nor there: many Protestants have simply decided that they don't like it and that's is.

This means that, while the peace process keeps moving on, each step is taken with difficulty. It seems that it will be years before its supporters can uncross their fingers, open the champagne and say with certitude: "That's it, it's over, we won."