It is easy to tell that once more the marching to the brink season has come upon us. All the signs are there: the right-wing of the Ulster Unionist Party is putting pressure on the party’s leader, David Trimble, to start making demands on Sinn Fein because of IRA behavior, the British and Irish government’s are calling a conference of all the pro-Good Friday agreement parties, and the Ulster Unionist Council is threatening to call a meeting at the beginning of July to vote on the UUP’s continued presence with Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland executive. It hardly seems a year since the last crisis, when the parties and governments all rushed off to Weston Park to try to halt the march to the brink before it went over it. It didn’t. They marched over the brink, the assembly shut down, and then they marched back out of it again a few months later when the IRA began the decommissioning process.
This time, the anti-agreement faction within the UUP, having lost the decommissioning issue, has taken up with a few replacements, most notably the IRA’s involvement in Colombia, where recent reports on the BBC have said it was testing new weapons.
Trimble managed to face down the spoilers in a meeting on Saturday, but the pressure has not been relaxed.
Skeptics on the nationalist side sigh in despair at ever being able to appease the anti-agreement Unionists, led by Jeffrey Donaldson, who has been eyeing his leader’s job for years but has not yet displayed the mettle to seize it. Instead, he has been using David Burnside, the UUP MP for South Antrim and a vociferous critic of the party leader, as the attack dog, while he dithers in the background like some insipid Unionist version of Hamlet.
Nationalists have a point, of course. The diehard rejectionists will use anything on hand to undermine the agreement. But they do get a lot of help from the IRA. It is patently absurd for Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly to claim of the allegations about the three IRA members in Colombia that “all of them in fact up till now are unfounded.” The bird-watchers hypothesis plays into the hands of those Unionists who are deeply suspicious of the IRA’s intentions and it convinces them that there is a big scandal here, thanks to the desperate attempts to cover it up.
Fortunately, a meeting between Gerry Adams and Trimble seems to have produced positive results, though what they are we do not yet know. Both men are determined to resolve the dispute without marching over the brink like the last time. That in itself is progress.