Arms move risks dangerous divisions in Unionist parties

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The Independent Online

The expected IRA move on decommissioning will provide a huge opportunity and a major challenge to the Protestant and Unionist community, many of whom never expected to see such a development.

Those Unionists who want the Good Friday Agreement to succeed, such as Unionist leader David Trimble, will celebrate because, finally, the republican movement is meeting some of their demands. But to many other Unionists, against the Agreement, decommissioning will be politically unwelcome.

Protestants are deeply fractured, with six separate Unionist parties represented in the Belfast Assembly. In party-political terms the first key figure will be Mr Trimble, who will claim he has achieved what he has insisted on since the mid-Nineties. His initial crucial judgement will be to weigh whether the type of decommissioning on offer, and its scale, would be enough for him to sell to a sceptical party. His party is deeply divided on his own leadership (more than 40 per cent voted against him in a contest last year) and on the Agreement and the peace process.

If he decides the IRA has delivered enough for him to consider returning to government with Sinn Fein, he will have to take on the strong anti-Agreement wing of his party. This includes substantial figures such as MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside. Some elements who have always opposed the accord, will say any decommissioning offer does not go far enough, or no amount of decommissioning is enough to compensate for having Sinn Fein in government.

The anti-Agreement camp has swollen over the past year, restricting Mr Trimble's room for manoeuvre and adding to the general Protestant disillusion with politics. Recent election results have shown a considerable swing from the Ulster Unionists and major gains for Dr Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists.

Reversing this trend will be a formidable task: it could be undertaken only after large-scale decommissioning. Even then there is no guarantee the traditionally sceptical Protestant population will be swayed.

If Mr Trimble does decide to go for it, his only hope is that the arms move will be of the most far-reaching type, since what is needed is a transformation of the attitudes of the Unionist political classes, and the voters.