By Jack Holland
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble may well go into the record books for getting an election campaign off to an early start. For his weekend call for a border poll and his attack on the make-up of the Irish Republic was just that: the first salvo in the assembly election that is not even due to be held until May 2003. But Trimble, speaking at a meeting of the UUP’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, was in effect launching a preemptive strike against prospective opponents who might be thinking of trying to remove him later as the election campaign looms.
Both the call for a border referendum and the attack on the Irish state — which he scathingly described as a “pathetic, sectarian, mono-ethnic, monocultural state” — are popular with rank-and-file Unionists, where his support has been gradually slipping since April 1998 and the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Indeed, prior to last weekend’s UUC meeting, it was being rumored that Trimble would be ousted by nervous party members who did not want him to lead them into the electoral fray in May next year. There was even talk of another stalking horse candidate for the leadership to manifest himself at this year’s conference. It never happened. Instead, Trimble had his easiest ride in years.
In some ways, this is a surprising development, considering the thorny issues that had the potential to threaten his command of the party faithful. Enemies could have made much of the fact that the IRA had not followed up on its first act of decommissioning last October. Even though it was supposed to be part of a “process,” there has been no follow through. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein is still sitting snugly in government.
Then there was the question of the “On The Run” paramilitaries — the vast majority of them IRA members — to which the British government is currently struggling to come up with an answer. Unionists fear that whatever it will be it will not be to their liking — either some kind of amnesty, or, even more offensive to them, the queen’s pardon. OTRs is an especially dangerous issue for the UUP, since it is outside the terms of the agreement. Their rivals in the Democratic Unionist Party would be sure to exploit this as proof that Trimble was weak-kneed, unable to prevent the British from giving concession after concession to the IRA and Sinn Fein. That is, it would not play well in Ballymena or Larne.
These issues still have the potential to develop into electoral problems for the party as the months tick down to election day. But in the meantime, Trimble has started the hare of the border poll, which his party seems happy to chase. The Rev. Ian Paisley and his party can hardly object. How can they oppose a poll which all unionists are confident will demonstrate the continuing strength of the Union?
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Trimble is not just setting up easy issues for the sake of distracting his party and his opponents from more difficult ones. He believes that if, as he requests, a border poll is held on the same day as the assembly elections, it will get out the UUP vote. For Trimble, the biggest threat has been the apathy of UUP supporters, who have been staying away from the polls in increasing numbers. A border poll would be sure to galvanize them.
The Social Democratic and Labor Party is unhappy with the prospect of a poll. Paisley’s party is probably also not pleased to be outmaneuvered. The Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has said he doesn’t really see the point. The British government, for its part, is staying mute. Ironically, the only party that has agreed with Trimble is Sinn Fein, which has welcomed the demand. Party leaders have recently been trying to shift the political debate to the issue of a united Ireland. It is also excited by the leaks from unnamed statisticians indicating that the Catholic population of Northern Ireland maybe nearing parity in numbers with the Protestant, which means it expects the race, if it is held, would be much closer than Unionists will like.
This is another spectacular U-turn for the republican movement. The last time there was a border poll, on March 8, 1973, the IRA’s only comment on it was to leave two large car bombs in London that killed one man and injured 180.