DRUMCREE STAND-OFF: Ulster prepares for a new white-knuckle ride

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE OPTIONS for the Protestants of Northern Ireland were graphically illustrated on television yesterday as David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, was being interviewed by Noel Thompson of the BBC.

While the questioning went on, a large studio monitor in the background showed the scene at Drumcree, where hundreds of Orangemen were milling about in the opening stages of their annual contest of will with local Catholics and the security forces.

As Mr Trimble was finding fault with the details of Tony Blair's scheme to put him into the same government as Sinn Fein, the monitor depicted, pretty well literally, the old sectarian trenches that are the logical and ugly result of tribal politics.

The Ulster Unionist leader indicated that he has a series of problems with the Blair formula. He wants to reopen the issues of when decommissioning would start, of the strength of the republican commitment to disarm and of the failsafe mechanisms to be employed should the republicans renege.

Asked if could go for this deal, he replied: "Not as it stands." But he slammed no doors and left open the possibility that, with adjustments, it might become acceptable to him.

Distrust is endemic in Northern Ireland politics, but particularly so within his Ulster Unionist Party, which came into being largely because of Protestant suspicion of British intentions. It is a cautious and conservative party with traditionally slow and lumbering thought processes, and both Tony Blair and the republicans have given it much to think about.

It is no secret that within his party Mr Trimble has breathing down his neck colleagues who are widely regarded as among the most treacherous and disloyal characters in Northern Ireland politics. There are also quite a few in the ranks who basically oppose any partnership deal.

Some believe Mr Trimble is minded to go for the current proposals, having first squeezed as many last-minute concessions as he can from Mr Blair; but he knows his back must always be guarded by a double-strength flak- jacket.

A useful mechanism for having the party win the argument over whether or not to go for the deal is to do exactly what the British and Irish governments did on Friday. By publishing the text of the proposals the anti-deal people have less opportunity to misrepresent what is on the table: Mr Blair has gone over their heads, putting the deal directly to the grassroots.

The stage is therefore set for a communal Protestant decision, arrived at over the next 10 days or so, on whether to go for the deal. This will be an anxious time for almost everyone, for Ulster Protestants tend to agonise at length over matters such as this.

When the Good Friday Agreement was produced last year, for example, Unionist opinion fluctuated wildly in the weeks of campaigning for the referendum on the accord. The Government was alarmed when it swung away from the agreement as the issue of prisoner release was highlighted, but was then delighted by the late swing that produced a final 71 per cent vote in favour.

First impressions over the weekend were that Protestant grassroots opinion may be more welcoming towards the deal than the Ulster Unionist assembly members were at Stormont last week. But now we wait for the oscillations that will probably happen before a settled Protestant view emerges: we are in for another bout of what Mr Trimble once described as the white- knuckle ride of politics.

While this process of political digestion is going on, the marching season has begun in earnest, with its potential for disruption and damage to community relations. The opening act of the annual Drumcree confrontation at lunchtime yesterday was unexpectedly trouble-free, generating some fragile hope that this might not be what Northern Ireland people call "a bad Drumcree".

A bad Drumcree means disruption and bitterness, petrol bombs and sometimes deaths. It is because of this prospect that Northern Ireland's people have been streaming, refugee-like, out of its ports and airports, seeking sun and sand instead of trouble.

Most of those who remain will be watching events at Drumcree on their television screens. The Unionists among them will be viewing the spectacle of disharmony played out against a background that looks like the First World War Somme battlefield.

At the same time they will be musing on the Blair plan and wondering whether it might indeed be a blueprint for a fresh start and a transformed Northern Ireland. If they conclude that politics need not be conducted from the trenches then the Blair plan might win their endorsement.