Trimble reaches across divide

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The Independent Online
DAVID TRIMBLE yesterday attempted to chart a new course for Unionism, speaking of boldness, imagination and the need to leave behind bitter division, hatred and violence.

Promising he would do all he could to make the Good Friday agreement work, the Ulster Unionist Party leader spoke of new arrangements capable of accommodating social, cultural and religious diversity, holding out the prospect of an honourable accommodation with nationalists.

He told an audience of businessmen in Belfast: "We can now get down to the historic and honourable task of this generation - to raise up a new Northern Ireland in which pluralist Unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility that is the foundation of freedom."

His words, billed by his party as being of historic importance, represented a clear departure from the standard rhetoric of Unionism, a political movement which has often been berated for its alleged defensiveness, negativity and lack of vision.

It even contained a fleeting glimpse of an olive branch held out in the direction of Sinn Fein, for it declared: "There is no party that is wholly outside the political process." He made it plain, however, that the republicans needed to provide more evidence of their commitment to political means alone.

Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein responded that rhetoric was not enough and that Mr Trimble "needs to recognise in deed as well as words that the days of second-class citizenship are over". Peter Robinson, of the Democratic Unionists, dismissed it as "a miserable performance and a pathetic speech, the greatest damp squib of the election".

The speech represents, however, the high point so far of an extraordinarily low-key campaign for Thursday's assembly election. As such it may represent an important seizing of the initiative in its effort to set a new and constructive tone for Unionism.

In addition to aiming to claim the moral high ground, it may have had the more prosaic purpose of bidding for transfer votes from supporters of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, who would not normally give their lower preferences to Unionist candidates. It also appears to have been designed to inspire those who normally do not vote to turn out on Thursday.

But there are signs Mr Trimble does indeed hold ambitions to fashion an updated form of Unionism designed to meet the challenges of a new era. The extent of his commitment to change will be debated extensively in the months ahead.

Speaking enthusiastically of the new assembly as "the chance to bring about change", he said: "We are ready to move on, to reach out, and to reach beyond where we are now. We are embarked on a long march and a difficult journey."