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Analysis: Finger on the ‘trigger’ makes Trimble tremble

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble this week faces the greatest dilemma of his career as the British government moves on July 15 to trigger the D’Hondt procedure nominating the ministers for Northern Ireland power-sharing executive, which will include two Sinn Fein members, who are scheduled to take their seats without the prior decommissioning of paramilitary weapons that Unionists have been demanding.

The British have refused Trimble’s request for legislation that would exclude Sinn Fein from the executive until decommissioning begins. Meanwhile, the Irish government rejected the Unionist leader’s request that it ask the Social Democratic and Labor Party to commit itself to continue in government without Sinn Fein, should the party be expelled following any failure of the IRA to disarm on schedule.

Trimble has been insisting that unless he receives such or similar "fail-safe" guarantees, he would be unable to lead the UUP into government and his leadership of the party would be jeopardized, threatening the future of the Good Friday agreement.

But both governments have been reluctant to go outside the terms of the agreement.

On July 2, they issued a joint statement saying that in the wake of the nominations to the Executive, the Chastelain Commission to oversee decommissioning will meet with representatives of the different armed groups and specify when actual disarmament will begin. Should the groups fail to meet its commitments, the assembly would be suspended and the agreement placed under review.

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At first Trimble gave an uncertain response, but as the days passed it became clear that it would not be acceptable to his party. Unionists were objecting that the only option available — suspending the entire agreement because the IRA had failed to disarm — was in effect putting the fate of a democratic settlement in the hands of the Provisional IRA Army Council.

Over the ensuing 10 days, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been attempting to reassure Unionists. However, as he prepared to draft "fail-safe" legislation this week, he ruled out "exclusionary" language aimed at any one party to the agreement. But he has taken a step to meet Unionist demands.

Should the IRA default on any commitment it has given to decommission after full powers are devolved to the Executive close to or on July 18, the provisions of the agreement will be suspended and the agreement itself put under review. But the prime minister has included an option in the "fail-safe" legislation allowing the secretary of state to convene the assembly to debate the review and then to take a vote on it.

This has angered Sinn Fein, which is not happy with the "fail-safe" provisions in general and see this as a step outside the frame of reference of the Good Friday agreement. But the British government argues that it is merely spelling out in detail the agreement’s review mechanism, and that the concession to Trimble is little more than a matter of parliamentary procedure.

The Irish government is also known to be "unhappy" with the step.

Whether or not this will be enough to strengthen Trimble’s resolve to push forward with the nominations remains to be seen. Meanwhile, he has other threats on the horizon as he girds himself for decision day on Thursday.

The Rev. Paisley’s party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is attempting to put forth a motion for the assembly calling on it to expel Sinn Fein. At the moment, the DUP has only 29 members supporting the move, and under the assembly’s rules, it requires at least 30 before any motion can be brought to debate. Should just one UUP member defect, it would allow the motion to go forward on Thursday, thus delaying the ministerial nominations for a day. While there is no hope of the motion being passed — under assembly voting rules, it would need 40 percent of the nationalist block to support it, an unthinkable development — it is feared it would lead to large-scale desertions from the UUP to the anti-agreement lobby, thus undermining Trimble’s position as party leader. This in turn would make it almost impossible for him to move forward and trigger the D’Hondt procedure for the nomination of ministers in the executive.

Such a failure would mean the agreement would have to be suspended, with a strong probability that it would eventually be abandoned. It would certainly mean that the republican movement’s agreement to cooperate with the decommissioning body, setting up a timetable for the process to begin, would be withdrawn, which could throw the whole peace process into doubt.

It would certainly mean political oblivion for Trimble himself.

The alternative is to accept government reassurances, with their fail-safe provisions, and nominate the ministers. Though this risks provoking Unionist opposition, or even rebellion, it at least holds out the prospect of success — a step on the road to complete decommissioning, which is what Unionists have been demanding all along.

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