There is only one man who can lead the Ulster Unionists

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The Independent Online

I was in the counting centre when the returning officer declared a red-headed university lecturer from Belfast to be the new Member of Parliament for Upper Bann. Nobody was surprised. It had been an Ulster Unionist seat for years and David Trimble was the party's chosen man. I can't remember exactly what he said when he came to the BBC microphones, beyond a generalised promise to work hard to protect the Union. In those days, David Trimble was known as an uncompromising Unionist, albeit of the Unionist Party's intellectual wing.

That was in a by-election in 1990, four years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement when Ulster Unionism was wandering the desert under the leadership of Jim Molyneaux. Mr Molyneaux was a genial and self-effacing man; a veteran of the Second World War - he was with the first British troops to enter Belsen - and an empire loyalist of the old school. I doubt if I ever met a more polite man in Ulster politics; he never refused to be interviewed and was a delightful contrast to the intimidating presence of the Ballymena preacher, Dr Paisley.

Mr Molyneaux had spent his entire career as leader looking over his shoulder at Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party. The roar of "sell-out" had done for the political careers of Lord O'Neill and Brian Faulkner; Jim Molyneaux had no intention of going the same way. Jim Molyneaux had no practical enthusiasm for devolved government. The problem for both him and Dr Paisley is that their threat to destroy the Anglo-Irish Agreement with mass protest fizzled out after an initial burst of fierce energy. When Margaret Thatcher made it clear she wouldn't yield to demonstrations, the Unionist leadership was left floundering. All the talk, the drum beating, the formation of quasi paramilitary groups like the Ulster Clubs - it all came to nothing.

The loyalist gunmen took a long look at what Sinn Fein had achieved and decided to go political (at least partly). Nonetheless, when Mr Molyneaux decided to retire, the mood among the majority of Ulster Unionists was still belligerently anti-agreement. It was the kind of sentiment that could lie dormant all winter and then explode over the marching season at places like Drumcree. Anybody hoping to win the leadership of the Ulster Unionists was going to have to look very uncompromising. Enter the belligerent red head from Queen's University.

But even then I suspect Mr Trimble knew the drum beating had just about had it's day. The Orangemen had been consistently outmanoeuvred by Sinn Fein-backed residents groups on the ground, a micro dynamic that reflected Unionism's larger failure to develop a political strategy to combat the determined pan-nationalist alliance of Dublin, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Something badly needed to be done.

And so Mr Trimble took the initiative, he became an apostle of compromise. It was almost certainly not his moral conviction that it was a good thing to go into government with the political representatives of the IRA, no more than FW De Klerk or Mikhail Gorbachev were privately delighted at the prospect of overturning the old order. But he grasped the most elementary lesson of peace making, one that unhappily eludes the die hards of the Ulster Unionist Party: you make peace with your enemies, even if they are the people who have bombed and killed your loved ones for 30 years.

The opposing view is that David Trimble is a classic "post-conviction" politician; he will change his principles at the drop of a hat to grab power, the rampant loyalist of the early Portadown marches was a sham, like Slobodan Milosevic's decision to don the mantle of Serbian nationalism. This is rubbish. Comforting though it might have been to continue wallowing in atavism, Unionism needed a rapid injection of thinking and energy. Mr Trimble managed to supply both without abandoning his belief in the Union.

The problem with the opponents of the Good Friday Agreement and Mr Trimble is that they cannot provide an alternative strategy. Their core certitude is that if the Government had just gotten tough on terrorism all this could have been sorted out years ago. They have never wanted a deal that involved Sinn Fein or an all-Ireland dimension. But the alternatives have been tried and failed. Every possible devolved formula has been run through the hoops.

How exactly does the Rev Martin Smyth propose to advance the situation? My suspicion is that if he is elected we should get ready for a long period of drift. In my Belfast days, the Rev Smyth was, like Mr Molyneaux, an unfailingly courteous man; he was also a restraining influence during some of the convulsive moments that surrounded the signing of the Anglo- Irish Agreement.

But he was not then, and never will be, the man to lead Ulster Unionism into a bright new future. Like Mr Molyneaux he belongs to an older Unionism of tiny horizons; like the rest of the anti-agreement Unionists, he is good at telling us what is wrong, but gives no clue as to how he'd put it right. Well maybe I'm being unfair here: he says there cannot be a government that includes Sinn Fein while the IRA holds onto guns. But that isn't a strategy, it is a narrow corner.

So the scenario is that the IRA keeps its guns and we wait. And wait. There may be flashes of violence here and there, but the war will not resume. The waiting could go on for a very long time. And in the meantime Sinn Fein will become stronger and become the principal voice of nationalism. If anybody believes they will take the blame for the collapse of this process, think again. And then what will the Rev Smyth do? With whom will he sit down and deal? The continuance of drift can only harm Unionism, as mainland opinion becomes ever more disenchanted with a group they believe, rightly or wrongly, are the stumbling block to progress.

I happen to believe the IRA has a moral obligation to the people of these islands, an act of contrition for the agony it has inflicted on so many lives. It could make Mr Trimble's life a great deal more easy by announcing unambiguously that the WAR IS OVER and by making a gesture of decommissioning. However, I don't believe the IRA has any intention of handing over weapons, it continues to see itself as an army that was fighting a war of freedom for which the ultimate responsibility must lie with the British state.

Mr Trimble knows just how little hope there is of early decommissioning, hence his tentative offer in Washington. But we have reached a point where the recalcitrance of the Provos cannot be allowed to deny the people of Northern Ireland the peace and the power-sharing they voted for. To stay out of government is to hand the IRA an effective veto over the political process. Right now, it is they who are dictating the terms. It is to David Trimble's enduring credit that he had the intelligence to see this and make the remarks he did on Saint Patrick's Day.

If the Ulster Unionists vote to cast him aside today, the province will have lost one of those rare moments of opportunity. I think David Trimble will win, there are enough people on the party council who must recognise that his urge for compromise is not an act of weakness, but one of rare and determined strength.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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