Leading article: Give us all the vote, Mr Trimble

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The Independent Online
Barring an accident of proportions that even John Major should avoid, Labour's effort to terminate this government is likely to fail. When the House of Commons votes tomorrow to censure Douglas Hogg, the hapless Minister of Agriculture, some Ulster Unionists will not bother to vote. Without the backing of the Unionists, Tony Blair cannot even get a tie in the Commons. That means no vote of confidence to follow, and probably guarantees two more months for Mr Major. But why has a Northern Ireland party, whose constituents have been hit so hard by the BSE crisis, come to Mr Major's aid? The answer lies in a blend of high and low politics which may, ultimately, be to the detriment of Unionism.

This week the Government will lodge its "certified herd" scheme with Brussels under which it hopes to achieve a gradual lifting of the world- wide beef ban. Nowhere in the formal plans will the words "Northern Ireland" be mentioned, but the effect will be that those farmers with grass-fed herds who can trace the movement of their cattle will be the first to start selling beef abroad again. It just happens both conditions apply to Ulster. We can safely assume that the point has been made forcibly to David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists.

This is the shape of things to come. When the Government loses its majority after the Wirral South by-election, Mr Trimble's nine MPs will briefly be able to determine the Government's fate. Expect more of the politics of the souk. Mr Trimble's next requirement comes cheaper. The Unionists want a more powerful - or beefed up - Northern Ireland Grand Committee, like the one for the Scots. Despite a promise from Mr Major, there is no sign of it yet, and the Unionists are desperate to have it operating before the election.

This is an ordinary case of political opportunism, but the Unionists should beware of the downside. Keeping Mr Major in power may be electorally damaging in Northern Ireland, where the Prime Minister is not taken very seriously, by giving Ian Paisley's rival Democratic Unionists a club to wave at Mr Trimble's gang. It may also alienate Labour which, given the opportunity, is intent on reinvigorating the Irish peace process. Some Labour leaders are beginning to think that the Unionists are all take and no give. If, as expected, this summer's marching season produces a repeat of last year's Drumcree crisis - with Mr Trimble (the local MP) at its head - relations with a new government will be strained more than ever. The Unionists may yet succeed in alienating themselves from the country of which they are so anxious to remain a part.

But Unionism trusts neither main political party, suspecting both to be capable of selling it down the river. The only political protection it can rely on is a weak government with a small majority which it can influence by its vote in Parliament. Mr Trimble's predecessor, Sir James Molyneaux, used to say he would not end the life of the government prematurely while it ruled in the interests "of the United Kingdom in general and Northern Ireland in particular". The continuation of Mr Major's feeble administration no longer meets the first of these conditions. Mr Trimble should do his best, for the sake of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland to bring down this government forthwith. It is time for us all to vote.