The Duke of Wellington’s remark after the battle of Waterloo might well be applied to last Saturday’s vote at the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in favor of going back into government.
"It was a damned close-run thing," the general was reported as saying.
The UUP leader, David Trimble, swung the delegates in his favor by a mere 53 votes, or 53 percent, with 47 percent against.
This time, Trimble posed the question not in terms of going back into government, but simply as a motion of support for the party leader. It was, in other words, a "back me or sack me" option. Trimble correctly counted on the respect that he still commands as party leader, since there is no one in Unionist ranks intellectually as able as he. This most Unionists realized. They feared that it the vote went the other way, Trimble would have been forced to resign. It would have provoked a bitter leadership dispute and cleaved the party down the middle, with possibly problematic long-term results. That was a trauma the majority wisely chose to avoid. But it was a slim majority.
The consolation for Trimble is that the motion was not hedged around by preconditions, as occurred in UUC meetings in November and January. The "Yes" vote was a gesture of trust in his leadership, despite recent turmoil and challenges, and it leaves him with a free hand to act in what he sees are the best interests of the UUP and the North.
This cannot disguise the fact that Trimble has taken another enormous gamble. Though there are no preconditions, there are expectations that were raised by the IRA’s statement of May 6, declaring its willingness to open its arms dumps for outside inspection before putting its weapons "beyond use." If this return to devolved government is to survive, and with it the hopes of the vast majority of Irish people who support the Good Friday agreement, then the IRA will have to live up to those expectations, and sooner rather than later.
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It is known that republicans, like most nationalists, are concerned and perturbed by the British government’s horse-trading with police reform in an attempt to bolster Trimble’s position. The reform’s recommended by Chris Patten’s commission on policing, and accepted by the British government, are essential to retaining nationalist support. They must be implemented. The SDLP has been in the forefront of this struggle, fully aware of its importance, and has compiled a list of more than 40 points where it claims the proposed British legislation has deviated from Patten’s recommendations. What is interesting and alarming to note is that many of them are not expressions of Unionist concerns but seem to reflect the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the bureaucrats of the Northern Ireland Office.
Such concerns may well create difficulties for the IRA in relation to its commitments of May 6. However, they should not be allowed to prevent the republican movement from pressing the initiative boldly by acting on its statement as early as possible. This would help isolate those who continue to try to renegotiate the agreement by demonstrating that the anxieties they cite over republican intentions are unfounded. That way, the trust that the new government needs will be created, enhancing its prospects for survival in the often fraught political atmosphere of the North.