The divide between loyalists and republicans is ended

`Trimble and those around him have finally become convinced that Adams is on the level'
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The Independent Culture
TWO IMAGES of Ulster leaders past. One, from 1995, is of a bloke with a bowler hat, beneath which burns a face the colour of raw beef, waving triumphantly to the assembled bigots and curse-armed Orangemen at Drumcree. The second image shows a tall, serious man wearing beard and glasses, holding aloft the coffin of a man who - days earlier in that autumn of 1993, on a mission from the IRA - had blown up himself and nine other people, including two girls aged seven and 13.

Both David Trimble and Gerry Adams were, of course, propitiating their tribal gods: making sacrifices without which they could never have become the interlocutors between the peace process, and those who needed to be convinced. But the symmetry ends there. Trimble was more enthusiastic about the preposterous procession than Adams was about the IRA catastrophe which left nine dead. And Adams was having to deal with an organisation on his side, many of whose members still considered such events as the Shankill bombing to be an unfortunate inevitability in a just war.

And finally, the opinionated class in Britain recalls Trimble at Drumcree - I saw the TV pictures again on Monday night - but has, with a few exceptions, forgotten about Adams at the funeral of the volunteer Thomas Begley. We realised he had to do it, and we moved on.

Anyway, we educated mainlanders seem to understand the republicans better than we do the Unionists; there's nothing as off-putting as the girl you don't fancy who keeps insisting that she wants to go out with you. Such imploring invites cruelty. Even so, I was shocked by the callous insouciance with which correspondents to this paper responded to a recent article of mine criticising the attitude of Ken Livingstone towards Northern Ireland. The shooting, bombing, maiming had been necessary, they implied, in order to get all the parties talking in the first place and to end discrimination (as if Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi had never lived). There is an influential section of trendy opinion that would urge us for ever to remember Bloody Sunday (quite rightly), and then demands that those Unionists, nationalists, progressives and others who suffered at the hands of the IRA simply forget all about it. Such people ought to read Lost Lives, the book listing the dead of the Troubles, co-written by our own David McKittrick. In fact, everyone ought to read it. And weep.

This one-eyedness helps explain the asperity with which we place demands on Trimble to lead his divided Unionists into a coalition government with Sinn Fein, the political wing of a still-armed paramilitary force. The irony of this expectation was brought home to me yesterday when various Labour and Lib-Dem personalities were quizzed about the Ashdown revelations that he was nearly appointed into the Blair Cabinet. "It would have split the party," said Jackie Ballard, for the Liberals. "There would have been a massive explosion," according to Labour's Ivor Richard. Hah! You can't have Paddy and Tony working together, though they agree on almost everything, but it's a doddle compared with Gerry and Dave forming administrations together.

It's easy not to love the Prods. The recent Unionist reaction to the Patten report on the RUC was so relentlessly negative that I too shouted at their stubborn, silly spokesperson, Ken Maginnis, every time he appeared on TV. The waxing strength of rejectionists such as the dreadful Jeffrey Donaldson has seemed to confirm all of those prejudices about the adamantine nature of Ulster politics.

But, in one thing, the fatuous pro-republicans of Britain and the Donaldsons share a delusion that those close to achieving an agreement do not suffer from. This is that the eventual success of the Good Friday agreement represents a victory for militant republicanism. It does not; it marks the complete defeat of the "armed struggle" against the Northern Ireland entity. For many years the IRA and its supporters calculated that terrorism would impose a price upon Britain that it would one day be unwilling to pay. Such calculations were strengthened by polls in Britain showing support for the withdrawal of troops. But they weren't withdrawn, and they were never going to be.

Gerry Adams has been a necessary man, and a deeply courageous one. One day he will tell us when he finally realised the futility of the terrorist campaign. At that point he could have got out, and let someone more hardline occupy the leadership. He didn't, thank God, and he has become, in the process, one of the most sophisticated politicians in the islands of Britain and Ireland: New Sinn Fein, New Ulster. He has known that every punishment beating and arms shipment has merely strengthened the hands of Jeffrey Donaldson and the Bourbons of Unionism.

But his value, like that of Trimble, is as an interlocutor. John Hume represents more Catholics than Adams, but Hume has no one with guns to convince. What seems to have happened in the last few weeks is that Trimble, and those around him, have finally become convinced that Adams is on the level, that the IRA have given up violence for good, and that further progress will make it possible for Adams et al to achieve decommissioning.

Look at the words, which are worth quoting at length: "Sinn Fein is totally opposed to any use of force or threat of force by others for any political purpose. We are totally opposed to punishment attacks. In the executive, the two Sinn Fein ministers will make and honour the pledge of office which includes a commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means."

It's over. And another lesson has been learnt, as well. Ulster is not divided between republicans and loyalists, but between those who want only their own favoured guaranteed outcome for the province, and those who understand that the process is what is important. Whether Northern Ireland becomes part of a 32-county republic, or enjoys eternal union within the UK, or is jointly administered, or establishes significant devolution, what really count are democracy and peace. It is through the process of the talks themselves, people expressing their abilities and limitations, that the Adamses and the Trimbles have come to appreciate each other. The means have turned out to be more important than the ends.

Mo Mowlam, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson are three British politicians who have grasped this. The airbrushed John Major apart, the Tories currently appear not to. Many journalists, especially those looking for one word answers on the question of decommissioning, don't seem to get it either. On Saturday week, David Trimble has to put the results of the Mitchell review to his party council.

It's going to be hard for him, and should he win the necessary support, or even decide that he has to go it alone, he will deserve all our thanks.

Not least for bringing the moment closer, when we can hear the economics spokesperson of Sinn Fein argue for more investment to be forthcoming for the crumbling infrastructure of Northern Ireland. The infrastructure that the IRA spent 30 years blowing up.

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