IRA Ceasefire: Unionist's unofficial ambassador stays on course: David McKittrick profiles a leading Ulster protestant who is ready to talk to the south

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The Independent Online
Over the space of a decade Dr Chris McGimpsey has gone places where Unionists have never gone before. As a sort of unofficial ambassador from Unionism to the Irish Republic, he has regarded the south not as hostile territory but as fertile ground for winning friends and influencing people.

Operating in tandem with Ken Maginnis, the Unionist MP, he has spent much time south of the border making speeches, attending conferences and appearing on television and radio. Young and sociable, he has created a network of contacts throughout the main parties and elsewhere.

The south has responded to him because he is a northern Protestant who is, unusually, prepared to cross the border and argue the Unionist case. Most southern politicians disagree with what he has to say but they welcome him as a man with whom they can do business.

Unionists are no longer regarded as distant impossible people forever saying no to everything and refusing to go south: now they are Chris and Ken, standing their round in the bar after making their speeches. Dr McGimpsey and Mr Maginnis have together given Unionism a human face in the Republic.

Their efforts have paid dividends. They have, improbably, helped create what has been called 'neo-unionism' in sections of the Dublin intelligentsia. A case brought in the Irish courts by Dr McGimpsey and his brother Michael achieved partial success and has caused the Republic to reflect on whether its constitution might be offensive to Unionists.

The loyalist cause is now regarded with less condescension and incomprehension because of the McGimpsey-Maginnis diplomatic offensive. Their efforts were among the factors which led the Republic to commit itself so clearly, in the Downing Street declaration, to the principle that Irish unity could only come about with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.

Dr McGimpsey, like Mr Maginnis, is a member of Unionism's small liberal wing, a fact which arouses some suspicion among traditional right-wing Unionists. He is firmly identified with the philosophy that the best way of securing the union with Britain is to reach an accommodation with nationalists and convince them that their best interests lie in a continuing British link.

Nonetheless he was last year elected as a councillor for the Shankill Road, the toughest loyalist area in Belfast, and for four years the party grassroots rewarded him with annual re-election to the party's important officer team.

Two weeks ago, however, 400 Unionist Council delegates voted him off the officer team. An attempt to shift Mr Maginnis was unsuccessful but another moderate, Hazel Bradford, was also dropped. Their places were taken by rightwingers.

'There are a couple of reasons,' he said. 'Principally there has been a right-wing swing against the policies that the party leader, Jim Molyneaux, has been following.

'But there's also the southern thing. I've heard one of the key movers against me saying that the only people you should send to Dublin are people who hate Fenians, because if you're any way nice at all to Dublin, they take it as a sign of weakness. That's a flat earth attitude, but it's there. I think it's a lack of insight and a lack of vision.

'They always try to attack me without attacking Jim Molyneaux. In the four years that I was a party officer I never once did anything or said anything that my leader disagreed with and indeed on many occasions when I went particular places and said particular things it was at the behest of the boss.'

One of those against the southern diplomatic campaign is Councillor Fred Cobain, a former Lord Mayor of Belfast. He explained: 'I don't agree with this idea that somehow if we pandered up to Dublin we could gain some concessions on the part of the Unionist party here. I think some people have a mistaken view that Dublin wants to reach an accommodation with Unionists here. I don't believe that.'

Dr McGimpsey said, he would continue to take opportunities to put the Unionist case in Dublin. But his removal from the officer team is only one of a number of signs of a harder Unionist line.

Many in the Unionist grassroots remain deeply sceptical of such bridge-building efforts.

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