Unionist Party leader David Trimble had the world watching last Thursday when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with John Hume. It was an opportunity that comes to few politicians, and one that has never been offered before to a politician from the Unionist tradition in Ireland. This, if ever, was the time to rise above the petty politics of Northern Ireland.
Instead, Trimble’s speech displayed some of the worst aspects of that provincialism that has been a characteristic of Northern Ireland politics since the state was created.
Trimble, scorning a "vision" speech for one that he said would be in the "scientific" traditions of the Enlightenment, used the occasion to attack Sinn Fein over the decommissioning issue. In a lamentably imprecise use of language, he stuck the label of "fascism" on the republican movement.
Trimble, conscious of elevated nature of the occasion, attempted to disguise his party politicking by giving it an intellectual gloss. He asserted that the source of what he terms in a silly metaphor the "dark stream of fascism" is found in Plato’s Republic; according to Trimble, it is this dark stream that helped create the French and Russian Revolutions, the Nazi movement and the IRA.
Perhaps the Unionist leader wanted to impress his audience with a sprinkling of historical references. Instead, he used the word "fascism" in the way all demagogues do: by employing it simply as an insult, a denigration of all to which they are politically opposed.
The chief thing that these movements and revolutions have in common is the violence that accompanied them. Violence is a characteristic of fascism. It does not need a Nobel laureate to tell us that. But violence is not its only, nor even defining, characteristic.
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In their purest forms, republicanism and communism intended to change society for the better; whatever pain and suffering early communists inflicted were done so in pursuit of an ideal. Fascism has never had and has never pretended to have anything other than oppression as its goal, either on a racial, religious or an ethnic basis.
It suits Trimble to associate Irish republicanism with fascism because that implies that Irish republicanism has as its aim the oppression of Ulster Protestants. This is as much a historical distortion as blaming Plato for Hitler’s concentration camps.
Trimble set out in his speech, it seems, to dissociate himself from the violent "fascist" tradition of politics to which he unfairly and inaccurately links Sinn Fein. He could have done so, of course, three years ago and much more unequivocally by refusing to do a triumphal jig down Garvaghy Road with the Rev. Ian Paisley, whom a Northern Ireland prime minister described as a fascist in 1966. However, let us not dwell on the past. Trimble’s speech contains enough of that, regrettably because it should have been about the future — the kind of future he foresees for Northern Ireland. But that requires a vision, something that if this mean-spirited speech is indicative, it appears neither Trimble nor the Unionism he espouses yet possesses.