Ireland will owe Trimble a great debt if the divides are bridged

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD take a poet like Louis MacNeice, steeped in the strange nuances of what it means to be an Ulsterman, to do justice to the unconscious fusion of traditions David Trimble encountered on the stump in the little town of Portstewart on the County Derry coast this week. In the town hall, as the gulls wheeled and squawked angrily against a greying sky outside, a mixed but predominately Protestant audience were fondly watching their children competing in an Irish dancing festival.

They greeted Trimble's unexpected interruption warmly, stretching out their hands to shake his. But Irish dancing is one thing, politics another. Helen Acheson, one of the mothers, was, she told him, "tempted to say no". But she feared the settlement was a first step to a united Ireland, an Ireland, to her mind so socially repressive that a 13-year-old girl had been forced to go to the European Court of Human Rights to secure an abortion. And she was rigid with rage at the triumphalism of released prisoners - at least as much that of the loyalist Milltown murderer Michael Stone as the Balcombe Street IRA men who took part in the grisly televised scenes at the Sinn Fein conference this month.

And yet it wouldn't be wholly surprising if Mrs Acheson does, in the end, finally vote "Yes" after her intense conversation with the UUP leader. Trimble is not a hard-sell campaigner. He has a certain self deprecating charm almost wholly absent from his TV persona. He is polite to Mrs Acheson. He sympathises viscerally with her anxiety about prisoners. But he continually points out to doubters like her that in the last ten years 500 life sentence prisoners have anyway been released, that a "No" vote leaves little else than the hated Anglo-Irish agreement, that for the first time the republicans have now accepted membership of a partitionist body, the planned 108-member assembly, and that Mitchell McLaughlin, chairman of Sinn Fein, no less, has admitted that "the negative from the republican perspective is that it does, to an extent, legitimise the British state in Ireland."

Yesterday's Irish Times telephone poll suggested the large pool of undecided Unionist voters are moving towards a "Yes" vote. The poll was taken before Tony Blair's high-profile campaigning in the province yesterday. If it's right, therefore, it will have had a good deal to do with Trimble's own leadership. For given the huge mainland political will behind a resounding "Yes" vote , Trimble has not exactly had it easy these past few weeks.

At times he has cut a lonely figure - though he has been accompanied for much of this week by the popular and highly persuasive pro-union Labour MP Kate Hoey, born and bred in Northern Ireland. He has a deeply split party, only three of whose other nine UUP MPs have been supporting him. His predecessor has deserted him. He is irritated at what he sees as the broadcasters' desire to bend over backwards to accommodate the two most prominent "No" campaigners, Ian Paisley and Bob McCartney. And, above all, he was furious at the appearances of the Balcombe Street gang and of Michael Stone.

He believes that elements in Sinn Fein deliberately set out to reduce the size of the Unionist "Yes" vote - but also that Mo Mowlam could and should have done more, first to dissuade the Irish government from allowing the IRA men's appearance in Dublin and secondly to stop that of Michael Stone in Belfast - which to the undisguised annoyance of Downing Street overshadowed Blair's second visit.

Here there is a paradox; in the United Kingdom as a whole Mo Mowlam's popularity is second only to - and in one poll even greater than - that of Tony Blair. On the other, relations between the UUP leadership and Dr Mowlam are under grave strain - something which unless mended could exacerbate the problems ahead. And these are formidable enough already. Despite the swing towards a "Yes" vote, it is too early to rule out the daunting possibility that Ian Paisley and dissident UUP members of the new assembly will command a sufficiently large block of seats to exercise a wrecking veto over assembly decisions.

Yet for all this Trimble gives every appearance of being in good heart. Having risked all, he knows there is no turning back. But in any case he claims - not unreasonably - to detect signs that the argument is now moving his way.

Of course there will be intense competition between "Yes" and "No" elements in the UUP for places on the candidates' list. But in an interesting harbinger of what could be the new cross community politics ahead, Seamus Mallon, the far-sighted deputy leader of the SDLP, appealed this week for pro- agreement Unionists to put his own party, rather than Ian Paisley's, down as second preferences in the transferable vote system which will elect the new assembly. Certainly the future will depend on John Hume and David Trimble extending the co-operation they have showed in the closing stages of the campaign to the assembly itself.

And as with the politicians, so, it increasingly appears, with the voters. In Coleraine this week an elderly, quiet spoken man explained to Trimble that "with 25 years' service to the Crown" he just couldn't find it in himself to vote "Yes". But even he admitted that the future may in the end lie with those like 14-year-old Nicola Stewart from Coleraine High School who said firmly: "It's just too narrow-minded to keep saying no."

The question, of course, is whether that future is now. For as Tony Blair said in Coleraine on Wednesday evening, the chance may not come again for a generation. Sixty years ago that same Louis MacNeice, a Protestant born in Belfast and brought up in County Antrim, wrote in a poem laced with impatience at the ancient hatreds of his native land: "Your hope must wake/while the choice is yours to make, /The mortgage not foreclosed, the offer open."

It feels a lot like that now; and if Northern Ireland accepts its offer today as decisively as it looks it will owe a large debt to the brave, complex and sometimes prickly man who leads the Ulster Unionist Party.