Trimble wins: will peace lose?

The new leader of the Ulster Unionists has a reputation: ill-tempered, suspicious and uncompromising
Click to follow
Most non-Unionist politicians and observers throughout Ireland have spent the weekend in undisguised dismay as they contemplate the election of David Trimble as leader of the Ulster Unionist party.

Of several dozen people privately offering their opinions of the new leader, almost all regarded his elevation as disastrous for his party, the peace process and community relations generally. The universality of the gloom is striking.

Non-Unionist opinion had a benign scenario all worked out. The victor in Friday night's contest, everyone thought, was to be John Taylor, a tough old campaigner who, though hardline, would none the less have the clout and the vision to take his people, eventually, into the peace process and hence into a new era of accommodation between Unionists and nationalists, Britain and Ireland.

Instead they got David Trimble, who in a quarter of a century has built a reputation as an ill-tempered, unalloyed hardliner. Northern Ireland's largest political grouping has just elected a figure whom most non-Unionists regard with something close to horror.

"He has the shortest fuse in Irish politics," said one observer. Another noted: "He gets more angry more quickly than anyone else I know." There was much recent astonishment when an editorial in the Times referred to him as a moderate. "I was having my breakfast when I read that," a government minister said. "Nearly puked up my Frosties."

The fact is that the party opted for the most militant hardliner of the five candidates on offer, and elected him by a handsome margin. Furthermore, he appears to have been given the job largely because of his tough and uncompromising line, particularly at "the siege of Drumcree" in July.

This was the incident, now reverentially commemorated by an Orange medal which has just been awarded to the new leader, in which he played a leading role in pressurising police to allow an Orange march through a Catholic district in his Upper Bann constituency. Although the episode was condemned as a community relations disaster, his party approved of it so much that it probably swung the contest for him.

He has a long history of association with extreme positions. For many years a law lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast, he entered politics in the early 1970s with Vanguard. This was a movement set up because, ironically, its members believed the Unionist party was too soft and compromising.

It was both a political party fighting elections and an umbrella group for an assembly of loyalist organisations, some of them paramilitary groups. Its leader, William Craig MP, a former Stormont cabinet minister who underwent a Mosley-style conversion to mass action, organised a series of monster rallies in which he inspected thousands of men drawn up in ranks. He was widely condemned for what became known as "shoot-to-kill" speeches in which he openly threatened the use of force.

Paradoxically, Mr Craig later not only converted back to conventional politics but unexpectedly produced a scheme for "voluntary coalition" which would allow Catholics into a new Stormont cabinet. Other Unionist leaders, in particular the Rev Ian Paisley, were so appalled by his new- found moderation that they ejected him from the Unionist mainstream.

Vanguard split, Mr Craig becoming leader of a small rump with Mr Trimble, who stuck with him throughout these turbulent years, as his deputy leader. This is regarded as Mr Trimble's only serious foray into moderation.

When their movement fell apart in the late 1970s, both men quietly rejoined the main Unionist party. But the party, it was plain, did not quickly take Mr Trimble to its heart, and it took him many years to work his way back into the mainstream.

When the Anglo-Irish agreement arrived in 1985 he stayed in the party but also joined the Ulster Clubs, a new organisation dedicated to using more militant methods to bring down the accord.

Ulster Clubs leader Alan Wright frequently used violent rhetoric, declaring: "Faced with treachery as we are today, I cannot see anything other than the Ulster people on the streets prepared to use legitimate force."

Mr Trimble said at this time that he had no objection in principle to "mobilisation and citizens' army calls," adding: "I would personally draw the line at terrorism and serious violence. But if we are talking about a campaign that involves demonstrations and so on, then a certain element of violence may be inescapable."

The Ulster Clubs - which eventually faded away in miserable failure - was a decade ago, and Vanguard was two decades ago, but memories are long in Ireland. The lasting significance of the two episodes is their relevance to the IRA arms decommissioning debate.

The new Unionist leader's position is that republicans should not be admitted fully to the democratic processes until their commitment to exclusively peaceful methods is established. His opponents can hardly be expected to refrain from pointing to his membership of two organisations whose leaders spoke publicly about the use of force.

His political career finally took off in 1990 when he won the by-election caused by the death of Harold McCusker. Since then his rise has been, by Unionism's generally glacial standards, positively meteoric.

In particular he has emerged as one of Unionism's most effective media performers - a highly important factor in a party whose last leader, James Molyneaux, was in television terms practically invisible. If he has also displayed his excitability and a tendency to become red, flushed and angry, this clearly did not deter delegates from voting for him.

They were aware they were choosing a leader who has shown no serious signs of attempting any outreach to Catholics and nationalists, and whose personal attitude towards Catholics, and the British and Irish governments, is marked by deep suspicion.

Optimists will point out that De Klerk did not look like a De Klerk before he became president of South Africa, and that as leader Mr Trimble will have to confront the reality of the peace process and come to terms with it.

Perhaps so: but it has to be said that this is the leader whom nobody outside Unionism wanted; that he has come to power on a very hardline ticket; and that 25 years in politics have left no real indication that he has a vision beyond Unionism and Orangeism.