By John Kelly
History has been postponed, not committed. Through its narrow vote in favor of devolution, and its accompanying caveat regarding decommissioning, the Unionist Party has effectively put history on the back burner.
The key month is February. It is when David Trimble will decide whether he puts his postdated resignation into effect. In turn, that depends on whether the party is satisfied that the IRA has effectively begun to decommission, a condition laid down by the Unionists themselves. It is not one that was imposed as part of the Mitchell review.
The vote, 480 to 349, represented a relatively slender 58 percent majority for Trimble. Before the unionist meeting Saturday at the ultra-modern Waterfront in Belfast, "Yes" vote supporters confidently predicted that the majority would top the 60 percent mark. Sagely enough, none were prepared to predict any more than that.
The vote also came with a sting in the tail, so far as Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein are concerned.
Apparently, mainly as a result of intensive politicking in London, by former dissident John Taylor, Trimble agreed that he should write a postdated letter of resignation. He assured Taylor that he will deliver it in February, effectively smothering the assembly before it can accomplish anything tangible, if the unionists are not satisfied that the IRA has begun to decommission.
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Thus, the unionists have guaranteed that they will have the final bite of the cherry.
It will be their decision alone. While Gen. John de Chastelain is in charge of the decommissioning process, the unionists do not have to accept any assurances from him. They have to be satisfied in their own right. Their final decision may be based as much on political necessity as on factual decommissioning. We are still left with the question: how much is enough?
Only the Unionists can decide. While the "Yes" vote has been hailed by the more progressive sections of society within Northern Ireland, it also has to be recognized as a very dangerous caveat indeed. In accordance with the Good Friday agreement, the Executive is being formed this week. But its immediate future is firmly in the short-term control of the Unionist Party. Taylor has had his cake – and he duly ate it.
"We have done our bit — and it’s over to you. We have jumped, you follow," a smiling Trimble challenged Sinn Fein after the vote was announced.
With considerable political astuteness and some personal courage, he had indeed done his bit — but it came with a price.
Understandably, Adams is dismayed. He claimed that it will fuel uncertainty and keep alive the hopes of "rejectionists," as he termed them, within the Unionist Party.
Few can quibble with that analysis. It certainly does that. It also strengthens the hand of Taylor, Trimble’s closest rival and a man who is reported to be keen to resume his office as effective financial minister for the new Assembly, the same office he held in the last doomed all-party government.
And it allows unionists like the right wing Jeffrey Donaldson the opportunity to continue to quibble over the "real meaning" of decommissioning. He has not yet decided as to whether he will continue to remain a member of the Unionist Party, unlike his colleague Willie Thompson, the M.P for West Tyrone.
Thompson put the right-wing attitude in stark perspective when he announced that he would resign as soon as the Assembly is formed. He will not sit in the same government as republicans.
Neither will the Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley and the increasingly bellicose Peter Robinson.
Another negative result of the Trimble-Taylor imperative on significant decommissioning before February is that it will allow a professional mischief maker like Paisley to do what he does best — make mischief.
The Unionist Party, which has a constitution often described as an "anarchist’s dream," includes a number of dual members within its ranks, loyalists who are also members of the DUP. All of those, of course, voted "No" to the Assembly vote last weekend.
You can be quite sure they will continue to exercise their prerogative to oppose the fledgling government with all of the influence at their command.
Paisley, meanwhile, will continue to swipe away from the sideline, naming the names of those he considers traitors to the unionist cause.
It is not only Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness who have expressed regret over the February caveat. Another who did so is Albert Reynolds, former taoiseach and the man who was perhaps more responsible than any for launching the peace process.
He described it as "unfortunate," because it effectively allows the Unionists the right to decide whether decommissioning is being carried out effectively. Yet de Chastelain is the only one who has that responsibility under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.
While all are correct to voice such serious reservations, there is only one way that the republican axis can give them no further room for maneuver.