The prize fighters

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The Independent Culture
When David Trimble

and John Hume

receive their Nobel

Peace prizes today,

many think another

politician should join

them on stage. But

who? Gerry Adams?

Mo Mowlam? Tony

Blair? Bertie Ahern?

Conflicting attitudes

to the award in Ulster

show that lasting

peace is a long way off

My political career has had a lot of downs as well as the occasional up," David Trimble mused the other day. "And, actually, I think that's a good thing - it's important for politicians to have known failure as well as success. I think those who have not experienced failure are then less able to cope with problems when they arise."

The words of the Ulster Unionist leader said much, not only about his own career but about the general course of the peace process. It has been a real rollercoaster - a white-knuckle ride, as he has described it - replete with violent death, long periods of stalemate and occasional exhilarating breakthroughs. And both David Trimble and John Hume will be only too well aware, as they step on to the Oslo stage today to receive their Nobel Peace prizes, that it is not over yet. Failure, or at least severe setbacks, remain real possibilities, and continuing political controversy is a certainty.

The Nobel Committee, in making the award in the form it did, clearly wished not only to mark the achievements of the peace process but also to hearten and inspire all the disparate elements to keep working for its eventual success. So far, however, it has had no such effect.

The peace process is currently in difficulties, the irony being that the business of negotiation and movement is actually been held up as various party leaders travelled this week first to the US to receive other awards, and then as Messrs Trimble and Hume went on to Norway.

They left behind them in Belfast a process which is if not in actual crisis, then indisputably in the doldrums. The actual Nobel ceremony may somehow produce a surge of momentum, but if there is a Nobel spirit last week's difficulties show that it has yet to infuse Belfast's political circles.

This is partly due to the fact that the awarding of the prize produced very different reactions within the two communities, nationalist and Unionist. There was certainly an element of celebration, particularly on the nationalist side, but for many Unionists the news was received with caution and even suspicion. On the nationalist side, John Hume's award was generally regarded as warmly deserved recognition for a three-decade career based on a non- violent search for accommodation. There is now an expectation that he will pull back from the front line of politics, having named his deputy, Seamus Mallon, as deputy to David Trimble in the planned new administration.

The prize thus had the appearance of acknowledging a long and distinguished career, the crowning achievement of which was Mr Hume's role in mapping out the peace process which produced the Good Friday agreement. The award will take its place in his Donegal home with the dozens of tributes he has acquired over the years in the form of scrolls, citations, honorary degrees and doctorates.

These are both an indication of his high international standing and a measure of how successfully he has marshalled and deployed world opinion in support of his goals. They are a visible sign of the network of powerful friends, allies and admirers who helped him make it all possible.

The only real argument to be heard going on among some nationalists, and especially among republicans, is whether Gerry Adams should have received a share of the prize as well as, or indeed instead of, David Trimble. Sinn Fein supporters would contend that Mr Adams helped launch the peace process bandwagon while Mr Trimble only recently and reluctantly clambered on board.

But even among those nationalists who believe that Mr Adams is leading his people on a laudable migration from violence to politics, the prevailing feeling seems to be that it is too soon to reward an odyssey which is as yet unfinished. Besides, the feeling goes, putting Mr Adams on the Nobel ticket would have destroyed its symmetry and balance and, disastrously, could even have led to Mr Trimble refusing the honour.

Nationalists have also been debating whether David Trimble deserves his honour. One faction thinks he has not earned it while another endorses the view of the columnist who wrote: "Credit where credit is due; having been pulled screaming and protesting into the peace process, Trimble has put his head on the political block." Another section, perhaps the largest, agrees with the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, who gracefully commended the Unionist leader for having "the intellectual clarity and political courage to know that 1998 was the time to move Unionism towards an accommodation".

Viewed from a Unionist perspective, however, all this looks very different. Just as Unionism remains deeply divided about the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, so too is it divided over the Nobel prize. Many regard it as a mixed blessing, and indeed quite a few see it as no blessing at all.

In the past, international recognition has been the preserve of John Hume and sometimes of Gerry Adams: Ulster Protestants have grown accustomed to being viewed as the bad guys, and to watching their opponents being feted abroad. International recognition is such an unusual phenomenon for Unionists that when the Nobel landed in Belfast many regarded it as some sort of Trojan horse.

So far it has been of no obvious benefit to David Trimble in his daily struggles with the Rev Ian Paisley and the sizeable faction in his own party which opposes the Good Friday accord. In anti-agreement quarters it is projected as clear evidence of a sell-out. Mr Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson, acidly described it as "a vivid example of the rewards offered to those who are prepared to jettison principle and reward terrorists. Better by far to be scorned by the world."

Mr Trimble may well echo the sentiment of Shimon Peres, who after winning the Peace prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1994, noted: "It is not enough to negotiate with your enemy. You also have to negotiate with your own people and that can be the most difficult of all." The fate of Rabin, and the present problems besetting the Middle East peace process, present a stark illustration of the fact that the Nobel prize brings with it no guarantee of success.

Within a divided Unionism, in other words, the whole thing has seemed problematic rather than a help. At the Ulster Unionist party conference, held a week after the announcement, the prize was barely mentioned. More recently, Mr Trimble noted: "In certain sections of the Unionist community people have felt uncertain, uneasy about the developments, worried about whether they will be for real, whether they really will deliver what they promise or whether it's all simply a con job. It [the prize] doesn't change anything, except it changes the atmosphere and it generates confidence and I think people feel easier with things as a result."

It will, however, take some time for traditionally xenophobic Protestants to become accustomed to viewing the international community as friendly, or even neutral, rather than as pro-Irish nationalist. But some of the Good Friday agreement's more far-sighted architects fervently hope that the accord, together with gestures such as the Peace prize, will offer new horizons and new perspectives on the outside world.

Many will regret, even as they congratulate the prize-winners, that the work of others involved in the peace process will not go down on the Nobel list. George Mitchell, the former US senator who chaired the talks with sometimes superhuman patience, is often mentioned as a possible recipient; so too are Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and various others.

In the meantime, at the mundane level of everyday politics, the daily and of late unproductive slog continues. Last week Tony Blair thought he had set up another increment of progress, only to have the deal fall apart within hours of his departure.

Arms decommissioning is as difficult and dangerous an issue as ever. Last week's exercise was intended to clear the decks for a new assault on the problem by dealing with the less highly charged issues of how many new government departments and cross-border bodies there should be.

These are important but essentially administrative details which a modicum of horse-trading should have settled. Most sides thought it would be good to have some progress to show, before the Nobel presentation and the Christmas recess but, in the event, a general Unionist trepidation about the pace and direction of events prevented even this modest advance.

This raised several disturbing points. For one thing, Mr Trimble seems to have decided to proceed only at the speed of the slowest ships in the Unionist convoy, which is to say that he will be governed largely by the most nervous of his assembly backbenchers.

For another, Mr Blair's authority was undermined, at least temporarily. The moment seemed right for progress and the prime ministerial presence has often been enough, at strategic points, to help bring about movement. But last week the Blair touch did not work as envisaged: he will be reviewing what went wrong and attempting to ensure it does not happen again.

In Oslo today the air will be filled with high-minded rhetoric, but back in Belfast last week's setback has amply replenished the old reservoirs of mistrust and suspicion. No solution is in sight to the years-old decommissioning problem; Mr Trimble and Mr Mallon are not getting on; tensions abound; trust is in short supply.

Yet for all that, the overall mood among both the politicians and the public at large contains much more hope than dismay. Although no one has been able to show just how the decommissioning issue can be resolved, there is nevertheless a widespread expectation that it somehow will be.

The Nobel prize has had no appreciable effect on the political classes, and has not created goodwill where until now none existed. To many members of the general public, however, it has great meaning as an award which reflects their profoundly held aspiration for peace.

If the present drama should escalate into crisis, it is they who will probably rescue the peace process from collapse. As voters, they of course care about the fortunes of the parties they support; but as citizens they put the preservation of peace far above party advantage. If need be, they will be there to give their representatives the same message as that of the Nobel Committee: that from now on failure is no longer an option.