What follows the triumph of Trimble?; PROFILE: David Trimble

The peace process rests on the Unionist leader's plans, says David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
Ulster Unionist hearts swelled with pride this week when John Major rose in the Commons to endorse David Trimble's suggestion that an election should become the centrepiece of the Irish peace process.

The sweetness of the moment was increased by Mr Trimble's quietly statesmanlike response to the Prime Minister. Most of all, it was heightened by the clear discomfiture of SDLP leader John Hume, who angrily accused Mr Major of seeking to buy votes.

Unionists have become glumly accustomed to being pilloried as obstacles to peace and progress. The sight of Mr Hume, incensed and isolated in the House, was for them a rare and welcome reversal of roles. It is much more common to see Mr Trimble in a temper than Mr Hume. In that moment, the veteran nationalist leader appeared to have been bested by Mr Trimble's new Unionism.

It may be that the triumph was beginner's luck for Mr Trimble, who has led his party only since September. Or it may be that his proposal for an elected body simply suited the Government's objective of maintaining a slow pace in the peace process. Or it may be a new era of a more constructive Unionism, though few non-Unionists are yet convinced. Last September, Mr Trimble was the surprise choice of his party to succeed the septuagenarian James Molyneaux; most thought the job would go to the man who is now his deputy - John Taylor. Instead, the party opted for Mr Trimble, the youngest and most militant of the five candidates on offer.

What swung the election for him was his reputation as an uncompromising hardliner as epitomised by his performance several months earlier at what is known as as "the siege of Drumcree". This was the incident in which Mr Trimble, an Orangeman, played a leading role in resisting a police ban on an Orange plan to march through a Catholic district in Portadown, Co Armagh.

The 48-hour stand-off was attended by some disorder, and only yesterday, 15 people appeared in court on charges arising from it. But it has entered Orange folklore as a famous victory for loyalist determination not to back down in a confrontation, and it helped get Mr Trimble his job. The party also liked his relative youth, his articulacy and his accomplished television performances.

He had been MP for Upper Bann, one of Northern Ireland's most bitter sectarian cockpits, for only five years before his elevation, although he has a political track record stretching back to the early Seventies. Almost all of that time was spent on the far right of Unionism, as a member of a number of politically extreme organisations and, since 1978, of the main Ulster Unionist party.

Throughout those years, he was a law lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast. A series of Catholic employees have won religious discrimination cases against the university, but Mr Trimble has made no secret of his belief that the real story is one of discrimination against Protestants. At Queen's, he met his second wife, who was one of his students. Together, they have four children; she works in his constituency office in the mornings, describing herself as "the domestic back-up." They listen to Verdi and Strauss, and he is fond of Wagner.

On his election, Mr Trimble hit the ground running, arranging a comprehensive series of meetings with most parts of the political spectrum - except, of course, Sinn Fein - in Belfast, London, Dublin and Washington. This was a real departure for a Unionist leader, for his predecessor was a model of reserve and reticence, instinctively shying away from such encounters.

The Trimble style, however, has not been to use such meetings to build bridges, or win friends and influence people. Instead, he goes for directness rather than diplomacy, putting his points in reportedly forceful manner. Assuming the plans for an elected body go ahead, a key question will be whether he would attempt to move away from the traditional Unionist approach of treating such institutions as gladiatorial arenas.

The main pointers against his doing so lie in his hardline record and in the huge amount of mistrust that exists in Northern Ireland politics and Anglo-Irish relations. One feature of Mr Trimble's politics is that he exudes distrust of his political opponents.

He has regularly accused nationalists of acting in bad faith. He has often expressed mistrust in British governments, too. In launching his leadership campaign, for example, he declared: "I would never go into Downing Street alone. You've got to have someone else with you to take notes, observe and listen carefully; one must be careful not to be seduced."

Conversely, he has yet to win the trust of those with whom he will deal. No significant northern nationalist figure has given signs of being persuaded that Mr Trimble is serious about wanting to reach an agreement with their tradition. A Catholic priest spoke of him having "ogre status" among nationalists.

Nor is there any sign that government ministers are opting for an election on the basis of any belief that Trimble looks ready to make a new historic accommodation, for they have often privately complained of his aversion to compromise. It was only a few months ago that a minister spoke of seeing the Unionist leader described as a moderate: "I was having my breakfast when I read that. Nearly puked up my Frosties."

Mr Trimble is the man of the moment, but what has not yet emerged is his view of the strategic direction Unionism should be taking. It is not clear whether he believes in stalling, in the event that the ceasefires eventually break down, or whether he really envisages, after the election, sitting down for the first time with Sinn Fein. A great deal, perhaps even peace itself, will depend on the course he chooses.