By Jack Holland
The British government’s attempt last week to reassure the Ulster Unionist Party that it would act against paramilitaries behaving badly has failed, most observers agree.
At best it is being called a crisis deferred, and at worst some fear that it has actually made UUP leader David Trimble’s position more difficult. Already, speculation is rife that Trimble might resign from the Executive in the fall and precipitate an election for the power-sharing assembly. Assembly elections are not due until May of next year. However, observers who are familiar with the Unionist leader’s thinking say that an early election is unlikely. But what is more certain is that come September, Trimble will take some action to absent himself from the institutions of government, most probably the cross-border bodies which Unionists targeted before during an earlier crisis. In this scenario, the executive would eventually fall, with an election following soon afterward, probably in January.
Such a prospect is not welcome to moderate Unionists nor members of the Social Democratic and Labor Party. The UUP divisions over support for the Good Friday agreement continue to deepen and the party will face a strong challenge from the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party. The SDLP will be challenged by Sinn Fein, which aims to become the largest nationalist party. Most observers believe that it will achieve that goal at the next assembly elections, whenever they are held.
Unionists were deeply disappointed at the British government’s response to their demands that action should be taken against Sinn Fein because of alleged IRA activities. Nationalists, meanwhile, were angered by the continuing focus on the IRA when most of the violence stems from loyalists, especially the Ulster Defense Association, which claimed responsibility last week for the murder of Gerard Lawlor, a 19-year-old Catholic shot dead in North Belfast. It is also suspected of having a hand in the recent riots both in North Belfast and more recently near the city center.
The statement by Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, Sir John Reid, on Wednesday, July 24, promised to “give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organization is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or any similar preparations for a terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. I say to the House — lest there be any doubt on the matter — that I will not hesitate to use the powers Parliament has given me if the circumstances warrant it.”
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A tightening of what constitutes violations of the cease-fire was widely predicted as the government’s likeliest response to Unionist demands. But the powers that Reid refers to that he would invoke to chastise Sinn Fein, require him to ask the assembly to consider a motion to expel the offending party. Since a majority of the nationalist members of the assembly would have to vote to agree to do this, it is extremely unlikely to happen as this would mean the SDLP voting with the Unionist block. That would be electoral suicide.
After his speech to the House, Reid was on the offensive, rejecting any idea that the government was too “soft.”
“There has been a higher level of security forces activity in North Belfast, and more roadblocks than ever before,” he told the Echo last Wednesday. “Twelve republicans and 21 loyalists have been arrested since May, but we need both a security and political response. Security is essential but not sufficient. Dialogue between the local people is the only way to solve it.”
Reid reminds critics of the process of the enormous progress made in recent years in the reduction of levels of fatalities.
“We must recognize the distance traveled by the republican leadership,” he said. “But we can’t comfortably live with politics and potential violence.”
In the prime minister’s statement, a call was made for the IRA and other paramilitary groups to be “stood down.” However, there was no suggestion as to how this might be effected. Unionists recall bitterly Blair’s words about decommissioning in June 1998, when he said it should begin immediately. It took another three-and-a-half years for the first weapons to be decommissioned, after a cycle of crises.
The British government’s recent words are cold comfort for moderate Unionists.
Said one informed source: “Trimble is now in charge of a party which is effectively anti-agreement.”