By John Kelly
By now, you can call a Unionist Council meeting rent a crisis. On one hand, you have the good cop, David Trimble, and, on the other, the extremely nasty cop, Jeffrey Donaldson. All you have to remember is that they are both cops.
Whenever things seem to be going too smoothly, you can be sure that with both of them in action, they will stir the Ulster broth.
So, Trimble won again, on Oct. 28, with an even bigger majority than he managed to muster at the previous Ulster Council meeting.
The simple fact is that both have cried wolf too often. The majority of Irish people, even Unionists, are tiring of the call to climb the hill and march down again.
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In Northern Ireland politics, Duke of York-type tactics are, like so many other historical anomalies, not a thing of the past.
On foot of a slagging match that lasted all of the week, Trimble underlined the reality of the latest emergency when he declared that the difference between him and Donaldson has more to do with tactics
The neutral, informed observer must be greatly puzzled as a result because it seems clear indeed that Donaldson is basically against power sharing. He has made it obvious that he just does not want to sit in a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein.
If there is no difference in principle between the pair, as Trimble has suggested, does this mean that he is also inherently against sharing power with Sinn Fein?
Ostensibly, almost all of the recurring crises within the Unionist ranks have revolved around the question of paramilitary arms decommissioning.
But under the strict terms of the Good Friday agreement, that is a matter for the De Chastelain committee, charged as it is with the task of inspecting IRA arms dumps, not for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Significantly, in a long, detailed statement, the IRA announced only a few days before the latest Unionist Council meeting that it was again opening large arms dumps to inspection.
Once again, this was not enough for Donaldson. There may be little in principle between he and Trimble. But the tactics are different.
What Donaldson claims to want is not just arms inspection but arms decommissioning. He will not be satisfied until the IRA destroys arms. Still, he is fully aware that it is not feasible at this juncture. The IRA cannot be seen to surrender — or even be suspected of it.
Other sections of the armed republican wing are still dangerous. The Real IRA has not gone away. However small in number it may be, it is still dangerous. It poses a real threat to the peace process.
During his brief visit to the North on the eve of the council meeting, the British premier, Tony Blair, was brutally frank. His ready, painted-on smile, did not mask the true direction of current British thinking. Without the will to share power, the Northern Ireland Assembly would surely collapse, he pointed out. He posed a direct question to recalcitrant unionists. Without the assembly, what is left?
While he did not quite spell it out, certainly not as bluntly as the Northern secretary, Peter Mandelson, he made it clear that what would be left is joint authority over Northern Ireland by the British – and Irish – governments.
That would be absolute anathema to unionists of all persuasions.
What Donaldson is unwilling to accept is that the assembly is the only show in town.
What Trimble is seemingly reluctant to do is to spell out the unpalatable facts to followers and opponents alike.
The internationalization of the Northern Ireland issue through the Good Friday agreement has moved matters onto an entirely different plain.
Whatever about differences within the various Northern Ireland camps the British and Irish governments are jointly determined there will be no recurrence of the bad old days.
Both are also satisfied that the Provisional IRA is just as keen to make the peace process work. This is why they are quite sanguine about leaving the arms question to the De Chastelain committee.
Unionists like to think of themselves as being plain-speaking people. They regard themselves as practical, no-nonsense realists. A bit of straight talking by Trimble would go a long way.
But, a little like the influential John Taylor, who swerves with every apparent nuance of unionist thinking, he has managed so far to evade such plain speaking.
In a statement issued just before the latest council meeting, Taylor indicated that he saw a great deal of merit in Donaldon’s ostensible aim, the destruction of IRA weapons by the end of November.
Clearly, he wants to keep a foot in both unionist camps.
But it cannot go on forever. The people, north and south of the border, are tired of the charade. They no longer want to hear breathless journalists counting the numbers while they speculate on the possible ramifications of yet another unionist crisis.
Predictably, we are threatened with yet another repeat at a future council meeting in January.
Once more the unionist drums will beat. The latter day followers of the Grand Old Duke of York will call on their supporters to march up – then down – yet another interminable hill.
Really, it is all so dreadfully boring. The majority of people on the island of Ireland have cast their votes in favor of the Good Friday agreement. Now they simply want the politicians to get on with the job of leadership and government.
It is high time that Trimble became a plain speaker.