No-one should be in any doubt: the peace process is in danger

'If Trimble falls, he may take with him the whole concept of a negotiated inclusive settlement'

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The political atmosphere in Belfast is now suffused with a sense of impending crisis, with many supporters of the peace process privately concluding that the odds are against it surviving the severe tests which lie ahead. It is not only the hardline Unionist MP for West Tyrone, Willie Thompson, who thinks that Northern Ireland's First Minister and Unionist party leader is "on the skids and he cannot survive." Most outside observers will look on such a prospect with both dismay and astonishment, given that the process has successfully defeated so many threats to its existence in the past.

The political atmosphere in Belfast is now suffused with a sense of impending crisis, with many supporters of the peace process privately concluding that the odds are against it surviving the severe tests which lie ahead. It is not only the hardline Unionist MP for West Tyrone, Willie Thompson, who thinks that Northern Ireland's First Minister and Unionist party leader is "on the skids and he cannot survive." Most outside observers will look on such a prospect with both dismay and astonishment, given that the process has successfully defeated so many threats to its existence in the past.

Yet the fact is that the political world is discreetly but earnestly discussing possibilities which include not only the fall of David Trimble, but the fall of the Good Friday Agreement and indeed the fall of the entire peace process.

This is because, this time, the threat comes not from renegade republican bombers or the like, but from the fact that Protestant support for the Agreement seems to have drained away at an alarming rate. Unless this can be restored, or astutely managed, the result could be meltdown. The summer had its share of violence, with disturbances arising first from the annual Drumcree marching confrontation and then later from the lethal Shankill loyalist feud. Yet both seemed to be more or less self-contained episodes which did not impact much on the overall peace process.

In the background, however, it turned out that the familiar phenomenon of Unionist alienation and angst was building up again in the Protestant grassroots. But, with a sense of summer relaxation in the air, nobody saw this as any sort of emergency.

The complacency was shattered by last month's South Antrim by-election, when what seemed an ultra-safe seat for Trimble's Ulster Unionists fell to Ian Paisley's party. The consensus is that this outcome was due not to local factors but to a decisive shift in Protestant opinion. This in turn sent shock-waves coursing through the political system and near-panic in some sections of the Ulster Unionist party. In its wake, David Trimble is appealing for concessions on a range of issues encompassing decommissioning and policing. He has yet to harden up his demands into ultimatums, yet it is easy to imagine him taking this road, and threatening to pull out of the fledgling executive unless the IRA delivers actual decommissioning. This is because of the pressures he is under from his own party, from Paisley, and from the Protestant grassroots.

The Unionist party is particularly concerned that, with a Westminster general election not too far away, a good number of its MPs look vulnerable to challenges either from nationalists or from Paisleyites. The problem here is that Paisley, though elderly, remains a tremendous vote-getter, while under Trimble the Unionist party vote has reached new lows.

Within the party the anti-Agreement faction can seize the initiative whenever it wishes. It now has the 60 signatures to call a special meeting of the party's ruling Unionist Council.

In May this body approved the formation of an executive, including Sinn Fein, by the wafer-thin majority of 53 per cent to 47 per cent. Given the alarm generated by the South Antrim result, the likelihood is that a re-convened Council would instruct Trimble to pull out of the executive unless the IRA quickly delivers its weapons.

All this would amount to a major crisis. If the executive collapsed or was suspended, many believe it would prove impossible to reconstruct: nobody knows if Humpty-Dumpty might ever be put back together again.

Trimble himself might not survive all this. His principal challenger, his Portillo figure, is Jeffrey Donaldson. He has a lean and hungry look about him but he insists his concern is with policy and not personalities. If Trimble goes it is difficult to envisage Donaldson leading his party back into a cross-community executive.

It might be pointed out that the same was true of Trimble in the days when he was regarded as an unalloyed hardliner, yet he wound up sitting in government with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness. But such conversions take time, and the peace process cannot wait for years for Donaldson to see the light of moderation.

All this arises from the general state of Protestant opinion, and in particular from a blend of tribalism and that dark strain of Calvinistic pessimism which is never too far from the surface. The tribalism shows itself in the mentality of viewing many reforms not as commendable improvements but as concessions to the other side, the Catholics. So often, changes are seen as yet more victories for nationalists and republicans.

In vain is the argument made that bringing nationalists into the police service and into government can provide a more stable society and polity. The Protestant community has historically felt that it had, and merited, privileges and advantages which were not available to Catholics. This has produced a mindset in which almost any move towards equality can be interpreted as yet another Protestant loss and another Catholic victory. Thus the blueprint for a new society, the Good Friday Agreement, is for many a recipe for pain rather than gain.

All of this poses acute questions for nationalism and republicanism, where support for the Agreement is strong. Once again the cry of "Save Trimble" is heard in the land, so once again Sinn Fein, Dublin and the SDLP will be pondering what they might do to help.

Increasingly in nationalist circles, however, there is discussion aboutwhether it is worthwhile making concessions to help a Unionist leader who may be doomed anyway. In particular, there is real debate about whether, with Unionist opinion in its present state, Trimble can be rescued.

That 53 to 47 Council split, and the increased level of Unionist disillusion since then, can be read as signifying that Trimble's time is almost up. More significantly it can be seen as signifying that Unionist approval for the Agreement has in effect been withdrawn. On this, admittedly dire, reading, Trimble will not only inevitably go, but will take with him the whole concept of a negotiated inclusive settlement, hammered out between London, Irish nationalism and Ulster Unionism. Such apocalyptic thoughts illustrate just how grave a crisis is now in prospect.

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