Why the IRA will be supporting the Ulster Unionist leader tomorrow

'If Trimble falls, there are few obvious successors with even a half-hearted commitment to the process'

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It is a measure of how far the Irish peace process has travelled over the years that the rescue squad trying to keep David Trimble in his two jobs, as First Minister and leader of the Unionist Party, should include the IRA.

It is a measure of how far the Irish peace process has travelled over the years that the rescue squad trying to keep David Trimble in his two jobs, as First Minister and leader of the Unionist Party, should include the IRA.

The IRA would hotly deny that any such motivation lay behind its agreement that international figures from South Africa and Finland would again inspect a number of its arms dumps. Its statement making the announcement was garlanded with the familiar expressions of its commitment to peace and justice, and equally familiar accusations of bad faith levelled against the Government.

Yet beneath it all is certainly the republican hope that Trimble will once again squeak through tomorrow morning, when the 800-odd members of his party's ruling Council gather in Belfast for the latest attempt to unseat him. The republican stance is eerily similar to that of the Government, which was yesterday doing all it could to get Trimble through Saturday.

Tony Blair appeared in Belfast to act as soft cop, announcing orders for the shipyard and its largely Protestant workforce. Peter Mandelson meanwhile acted as hard cop, darkly warning that collapse of the Good Friday Agreement would result in an expanded role for Dublin.

In general, republicans and nationalists, both in Dublin and in Belfast, do not like David Trimble, and do not admire him. This is partly because he is from a different and generally opposing tradition, and partly because he was against the peace process for years before coming round to it.

But it is also in large measure due to their suspicion that his conversion was not only slow but incomplete, so that his identification with the process is not wholehearted. As First Minister he is technically the foremost figure in the peace process, and yet he very often radiates dissatisfaction with the whole thing.

It is difficult to know whether this lies in style or substance. His projection to Unionism is not that the process offers a vision of a new and brighter future. Rather, he tends to convey that much of it is distasteful, that he wishes there was some other way, and that he's trying to make the best of a bad job.

Few can decide whether this is just his own style, which eschews ringing declarations and clarion cries, or whether in his heart he half agrees with much of what the hardline Unionist critics say. Either way, the assessment on all sides is that he is not a charismatic leader and that he is not one for carrying the battle to his opponents. The implications of this go well beyond the personal, for they could be vital.

The IRA's present tactical support for a Unionist leader is just one of many political inversions. These days nationalists and republicans, who were traditionally apathetic about voting, positively revel at election time, turning out in numbers which have pushed their percentage of the vote to unprecedented levels.

Paisley's Democratic Unionists are meanwhile holding their vote; Trimble's party is not. Partly this is due to a decades-long Unionist numerical decline, as the demographics slowly but surely change. In one 1982 election the Unionist-nationalist share was 58 to 32 per cent; in an election last year that had changed to 52 to 45.

At the heart of the Unionist vote is a black hole that seems to be based on apathy which causes Protestants to stay at home on polling days. The exception to this was in the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, when 60,000 extra Unionists turned out to endorse the accord.

The problem for Trimble is that they never voted before that, and have never turned out since. The once-mighty Unionist machine, parts of which used to be legendarily professional in personation, in organising activists to vote early and vote often, has lost the knack of getting the vote out.

As a result Trimble has led his party to its lowest-ever votes, and to setbacks such as the loss of the South Antrim Westminster seat to Paisley in the recent by-election. The upshot is that Trimble is weaker than he might have been in the Belfast assembly, weaker within his party and weaker within Unionism as a whole.

One theory has it that much of this may be his fault, in that he could harvest a rich crop of missing votes if he would stop half-agreeing with the hardliners and present middle Ulster with a vision to inspire those apathetic abstentionists to get out and vote.

The argument in favour of his existing tack is that too moderate a line could cause support to drain away to Paisley, and that the missing 60,000 might not turn out anyway. The fact is, however, that Paisley is gaining support anyway, as he showed in capturing South Antrim.

That outcome was largely due to abstention. Its effect within the Unionist party was an outbreak of alarm among leaders appalled by the thought of Paisley making yet more inroads into their support in next year's council elections, and at the next Westminster election.

Trimble and the other party leaders are unlikely to take the bull by the horns at this stage and will most likely follow their usual path of appropriating the criticisms of the hardliners. If this includes setting deadlines and timetables for IRA arms decommissioning, the process will be fated to struggle through many uncertain and destabilising times. The IRA knows all that very well, and is doubtless looking ahead to many more tests of strength and determination with Trimble. Yet if he falls, there are few obvious potential successors to him as a Unionist leader with even a half-hearted commitment to the process. There are variations of opinion within the anti-Trimble camp, but none of them would wish to keep the peace process going in its present form.

Thus the facts of life are the same for the IRA as for everyone else: if Trimble stays, his attitude to the Agreement will be as semi-detached as ever. But if he is lost, then so too is the Unionist party; and if the party is lost, then the Agreement in its present form is gone.

So it is that Trimble goes into tomorrow's meeting with the IRA wishing him well.

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