The supporters of the Good Friday agreement, i.e. the vast majority of the Irish people, have been waiting for it for a long time. Finally, last Saturday, it happened. The Ulster Unionist Party leader and first minister of the Executive, David Trimble, came out in defense of the accords that he and has party signed up to two and a half years ago.
The occasion was the annual UUP conference. Following the loss of the South Antrim seat to the Democratic Unionist Party two weeks ago, it was thought that the anti-agreement faction within the UUP would strike and put pressure on Trimble to withdraw from the executive.
Instead, Trimble came out swinging.
"It is time to tell it like it is," he declared, "the good and the bad." He reminded the delegates of the extraordinary reversal achieved by the agreement. Referring to Martin McGuinness, the ex-IRA leader and now minister of education in Stormont, Trimble said: "The man who tried to destroy partition is helping administer Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom on behalf of her majesty — that is the real seismic shift."
He could well have lifted that line from a speech by Republican Sinn Fein head Ruairi O Bradaigh. But for Unionists, it should have been a "seismic shift" that was welcomed, and celebrated, right from the moment in April 1998 that Sinn Fein signed up to the agreement and accepted Unionist consent as an essential part of any settlement. Instead, it has taken all this time for the leader of the party to come around to pointing out one of its most striking effects.
Not to mention the other benefits the agreement has given to them, such as the changes to the Irish constitution’s claim of jurisdiction over the North, and dramatic reduction in organized political violence that has given Northern Ireland its most peaceful years since 1969.
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Why it has taken Trimble this long to sell the product to his constituents is another matter.
After the agreement was just signed, and the tide was flowing in Trimble’s direction, he behaved like a vacuum cleaner salesman who comes to the door and says: "Would you like to buy this new vacuum? Actually, this bit here is not so good, and we don’t really think this bit works too well. Overall, it’s pretty faulty, but would you like to buy it anyway?"
Observers belief that had it not been for the intervention of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who campaigned in favor of the agreement for the UUP leader, he might not have gotten the amount of support he did.
Since then, however, supporters of the agreement have watched in dismay as Trimble has mollycoddled anti-agreement leaders like Jeffrey Donaldson. It was refreshing, then, to hear Trimble last Saturday denounce them vigorously for undermining their own party.
It was as if someone had reminded him that he was the leader of the party and he acted accordingly.
Will this be enough to save the executive? Probably not. Trimble does not have a good record of following through on his tough speeches. He must confront the 860-member Ulster Unionist Council within the month. The anti-agreement faction is waiting for that opportunity to strike, knowing that it has more support there than at the party conference for its attempt to tie him to a "no guns, no government" policy.
Trimble is to be applauded for the firm stand he took in his speech. But it is a speech that should have been made years ago, and repeated. But it was not, and the result was the collapse of support within the UUP for the agreement. And it has probably gone too far now for any one speech, however brave, to reverse.