Echoes from the past as Ulster's old foes meet

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The Independent Online
FACING THE CAMERAS in Stormont yesterday, David Trimble gestured towards the statue of Viscount Craigavon and noted that Northern Ireland's first prime minister had set a precedent in meeting republicans.

Although the folklore today has it that in political life Lord Craigavon was as unmoving as his statue, he actually took far greater risks than Mr Trimble, placing himself in the hands of the IRA to be taken to meet Eamon de Valera in Dublin.

Escorted to the meeting by "three of the worst looking toughs I have ever seen," Lord Craigavon concluded that de Valera was "impossible". But yesterday's meeting, in the altogether more civilised atmosphere of a Stormont committee room, seems to have been more productive - both Mr Trimble and Mr Adams giving the impression that it was a useful first encounter.

Although major controversy continues on many issues - most of all that of arms decommissioning - the general political sense is that the formation of an executive including members of Sinn Fein is now a near-inevitability.

The sterility of the Craigavon-de Valera encounter was followed by something close to euphoria when Lord Craigavon went on to meet Michael Collins. They got on so well that they produced a detailed agreement dramatically proclaiming: "Peace is today declared". That proved to be a false dawn, however, which was swamped in a rising wave of violence.

Lord Craigavon's account of his first meeting with Collins may not be a million miles from what passed between Mr Trimble and Mr Adams yesterday. He asked Collins if it was his intention to have peace in Ireland or continuing strife. Collins made it clear he wanted a real peace, while hoping to coax Northern Ireland into a united Ireland later.

Today Unionists are still determined to stay out of a united Ireland while republicans are still working towards it. But the tone of yesterday's encounter, described as civilised and constructive, appears to have been an advance on one Craigavon- Collins meeting when, reported Winston Churchill, "they both glowered magnificently".

As Northern Ireland's first prime minister, Lord Craigavon is seen by nationalists as having set a sectarian and anti-Catholic tone for the state. The history books quote his declaration in Stormont: "All I boast is that we are a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state." Down the years this, slightly misquoted, has entered folklore as "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people." It was, therefore, intriguing when, in front of Bill Clinton during last week's presidential visit, Mr Trimble made a point of using a phrase clearly intended to indicate a new departure for Unionism. He declared: "I believe we can provide a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people." This was seen as signalling a new era of coalition government including Unionists, nationalists and in all probability, even republicans.

In an upstairs corridor in Stormont, Sinn Fein is already installed in well-appointed offices. The mail-tray is right next to that of the United Kingdom Unionist party, while Gerry Adams has his own personal pigeonhole, just along from that of the Rev Ian Paisley.

Yesterday Sinn Fein people were flitting in and out of Room 263. None really seemed "the worst looking toughs I have ever seen," but many have certainly been behind bars for activities aimed at smashing the Northern Ireland state. Lord Craigavon would be astonished they might now be on the point of entering its government.