A journey through the twists and turns of Ulster Unionist decision-making

'Unionism traditionally hesitates before making up its collective mind'
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The Independent Online

Yet still it moves, this peace process that has been written off so many times by its supporters, and yet more often by its enemies; still it stays alive despite all the turbulence and disappointments and emergencies. But a real crisis is approaching. Once again almost every duck is in line for a historic breakthrough, with the customary exception of one particular duck, the Ulster Unionist Party.

Yet still it moves, this peace process that has been written off so many times by its supporters, and yet more often by its enemies; still it stays alive despite all the turbulence and disappointments and emergencies. But a real crisis is approaching. Once again almost every duck is in line for a historic breakthrough, with the customary exception of one particular duck, the Ulster Unionist Party.

David Trimble could turn up at Stormont today and indicate that he intends to place the package that emerged last week before his party's ruling Ulster Unionist Council. If he does, it will be game on, with a nail-biting lead-up to a vote that will have a crucial effect on the process.

If he says he's not going to risk it, that will be a crushing, though not fatal, blow to the process. Or he could follow one of the strongest and most basic of unionist instincts, and play for time. That would leave everyone still hanging on, hoping against hope, as they have been throughout the past 10 weeks of talks.

It would come as no surprise if he played for time, for unionism traditionally hesitates before making up its collective mind. Nationalists and republicans tend to reach decisions quickly and stick to them; unionists agonise and vacillate.

A year and a half ago, when David Trimble took the Good Friday agreement to the Ulster Unionist Council, he triumphed by 540 votes to 210, an endorsement of 72 per cent. But a repeat performance cannot be taken for granted, for things are different now. On that occasion the agreement was strongly commended to the Council, not just by the party leader but by important figures such as John Taylor and Ken Maginnis. Since then Mr Taylor has jumped ship, and he now opposes not only the new package but the agreement itself.

Mr Maginnis did not commit himself one way or the other when interviewed by David Frost yesterday, which means that there is much uncertainty in the air. If both Mr Taylor and Mr Maginnis are opposed, Mr Trimble may well feel it futile even to approach the Council.

He himself has so maintained an oddly agnostic pose. The fact that he worked out the package with Gerry Adams and took it to his assembly members would lead most to assume that he is pushing for it. But he has yet to confirm this in public.

In the past, Mr Trimble has sometimes taken on the role of messenger rather than advocate, bringing proposals to his party without actually endorsing them. This time, the fact that he has yet to clarify his position has added to the general nervousness.

The other odd thing is that the debate within unionist circles is going on without a text on the table. Only a very small handful of senior unionists have actually seen the package: others have been briefed on it, but have not actually been handed the papers containing the vital small print.

This means that over the weekend the air was full of contradictory reports. Some say that the package practically guarantees decommissioning; some say that the IRA could give up not just some but all of its weaponry by the middle of next year. John Taylor, by contrast, says it contains absolutely nothing new.

They can't all be right, and only publication will clear up the mystery. What can be said, however, is that Gerry Adams and David Trimble negotiated a draft plan; that Mr Adams endorsed it while Mr Trimble said he would take it to his party; and that Peter Mandelson and George Mitchell reckon it's a good formula.

The problem is that while republicans go into talks with their bottom line firmly agreed in advance, unionists go in, thrash something out and then see if the grassroots will buy it. This time the Protestant grassroots have been told for months, repeatedly and without ambiguity, that the unionist party's bottom line was insistence on guaranteed decommissioning.

Whatever the plan contains, it does not seem to include guaranteed decommissioning. Some of the grassroots, on learning this, shrug and conclude this was the best deal available in the circumstances. But others, who took the guaranteed decommissioning line as gospel, unalterable and binding, will feel that the package is a betrayal and a sell-out.

Once again the unionist pragmatists and literalists clash. This does not, however, capture all the complexities of unionism. As already noted, the Ulster Unionist Party is technically in favour of the Good Friday agreement, but many of its leading figures are openly against it. Over in the rival Democratic Unionist Party, the Reverend Ian Paisley is vociferously anti-agreement, yet the wonder is that up to half of his supporters quietly tell opinion pollsters that they want the agreement to work. Many moderate unionists harbour a soft spot for the Big Man; and many Paisley people are not as rigid as might be expected. At election times, many Protestant voters happily switch between the Trimble and Paisley parties as the occasion demands.

And none of this is static. Mr Trimble himself put years of bitter opposition to the whole peace process behind him to become a key player in it, and the positions of other senior unionists change all the time. The politics of the Protestant individual conscience combines with the right to change one's mind to produce utter unpredictability.

Out in the unionist grassroots the main oscillation is between viewing the whole process as a capitulation to terrorism or seeing it as an opportunity for a historic new start. The second interpretation has gained ground steadily, but it has taken years to do so, and the debate is not yet over.

Mr Trimble has spent the weekend taking the temperature of his party, and of Protestant opinion in general, weighing up his own conflicting instincts and making a judgement on what the market will bear. Today, the other parties should hear from him whether the stalemate is to continue, or whether the dash for a breakthrough is on.

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