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Editorial: Triggering Trimble

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The people of Northern Ireland are suffering from what one observer recently called "precipice fatigue." They have been to the brink once too often. Last week, it was Drumcree. This week, they have made the journey at least twice. On Monday, it was the Ormeau Road 12th of July parade, which threatened mayhem but like Drumcree went by quietly, without violence. But hardly had they moved back from one brink than they found themselves at another. On Thursday, the Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, makes up his mind on whether to trigger the D’Hondt procedures to nominate ministers in the new power-sharing Executive set up under the auspices of the Good Friday peace agreement.

He faces a stark choice: go forward, without the prior paramilitary decommissioning that he and his party have been demanding, and thus risk a rebellion from within against his leadership, or to refuse to name the 10 ministers of the new government, including the two Sinn Fein members, and risk the ruination not only of the Good Friday agreement and his own political career but also of the entire peace process.

If he chooses the former, he could emerge a hero, as long as he holds together enough of his party to survive as its leader. But if he chooses the latter, he will be almost certainly by charting a course to political oblivion. He may well survive as UUP leader, but who will care, apart from his closest associates? What kind of a leadership would it be that is unable to move in the direction that it wants to go? And what kind of a party would he lead? One that will be held responsible by many, if not the majority, in Britain and Ireland for failing to grasp the best chance for a peaceful settlement that the North has had in 30 years.

In his defense, Trimble might argue that it was not unionism but republicanism that proved intransigent in the end, by refusing to make even a gesture toward the ultimate goal of decommissioning that is part of the Good Friday agreement, and that without that gesture he could not deliver his party. There is no doubt that had Sinn Fein, the political wing of the republican movement, exercised its persuasive powers over the IRA and produced such a gesture, then the government would have been up and running long ago. Instead, as we all know, the republican movement chose to stick to the letter of the agreement rather than its spirit and adamantly refused to fulfill a commitment that was not clearly spelled out in the text.

Ironically enough, at the moment when Sinn Fein has accepted that the republican movement will sign up to a decommissioning timetable, as demanded by the Irish and British governments in their joint statement of July 2, Trimble has once more paused at the brink, still trembling in doubt, pleading for "fail-safe" guarantees.

The British government has tried to deliver them this week, with a complex series of detailed provisions designed to ensure that the Unionists will not be left sitting in a government with a party whose colleagues have two tons of Semtex under the table. But assurances from Her Majesty’s government are clearly not enough to calm unionist nerves. They never have been. "Perfidious Albion" is emblazoned in the brain of every unionist in the North as much as it is within the skulls of the most diehard of republicans.

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That is, perhaps, the ultimate irony of the situation. Both Unionist and republican have that much in common. If only their distrust of the British would lead them into trusting each other, then the crisis would melt away, and the North would have the peace with justice and equality that it deserves

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