The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, said after the meeting of the party’s ruling body on Saturday that his twin aims were to achieve "decommissioning and devolution." Both are laudable goals, and fully in keeping with the Good Friday agreement. Then why has he embarked on a course that is almost certain to ensure that there will be neither decommissioning nor devolution?
That is what has emerged from Saturday’s meeting, at which Trimble tied himself to a series of vetoes to be applied against Sinn Fein and the working of agreement if the IRA does not decommission its weapons.
The first veto will be imposed on Sinn Fein ministers to bar them from attending meetings of the North-South Councils. One such meeting is scheduled for Friday.
It remains to be seen whether Trimble has the legal powers to do this. However, it is the political consequences that count — and they are sure to be disastrous.
Then, should obstacles be put in the way of executing this tactic, the UUP has imposed a veto on its own ministers from attending the various bodies established under the auspices of the agreement, including the British-Irish council.
It will demand a veto upon implementation of the police reforms until "peace is assured."
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It will demand that the decommissioning body impose deadlines on the paramilitaries.
It will demand that the British government puts the whole agreement under review if these tactics do not bring results.
Finally, at the beginning of January, the UUP is to meet to review the situation once more.
Of course, Trimble did not use the word "veto" once in his statement. But in effect that is what it is. Nationalists realize this and they are furious.
The situation is dire, thanks to Saturday’s Unionist decision. It is doubtful if the power-sharing executive can now continue, with one party – the Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP — excluding itself, and another party, Sinn Fein, under threat of exclusion from the UUP. Meanwhile, the UUP is now threatening to also exclude itself if things do not go according to its will.
The truly alarming thing is that even with these concessions to hard-line enemies of the agreement, Trimble still lost 46 percent of his party, who voted against him.
The Saturday meeting confirms that Trimble does not have the will to block the incursions of the anti-agreement faction into the UUP’s policy-making decisions. He himself has stated that the differences he has with anti-agreement leader Jeffrey Donaldson are "essentially tactical" — an astonishing admission from someone who is the head of the government established as part of that agreement.
No wonder nationalists are in dismay.
The Irish government should ignore the Trimble threat and go ahead with the Friday cross-border meeting. It cannot back down without loosing its sway over Sinn Fein, which is vital if there is to be any chance of progress being made on the decommissioning front. One thing is certain: It will not be made as a result of threats and deadlines imposed outside the framework of the agreement by recalcitrant Unionists. The UUC is going against the will not only of the Irish people as a whole but against that of their own community, 68 percent of whom, when asked in a recent opinion poll, said they did not want a collapse of the power-sharing government. But that is precisely what Trimble is likely to achieve.