When the Ulster Unionist Party leader and first minister-elect of the Northern Ireland assembly went to Rome last month and met the pope, nationalists congratulated him on a splendid display of non-sectarian behavior. But they could not refrain from pointing out that Trimble was still refusing to meet with some of his own Catholic constituents who live on the Garvaghy Road, near Portadown. These are the people who have been besieged every summer for the last four years by the Orange Order who insist on coat-trailing past their neighborhood on July 6.
Now, Trimble has attempted to address that concern. Within the last week he has finally met with the Garvaghy Road residents group. They have held talks twice. He has listened to their complaints as both sides try to find a way out of the perennial confrontation that at times has engulfed Northern Ireland and threatened the entire peace process.
The talks have so far not achieved a breakthrough but have been described as business-like and constructive. In the poisonous and suspicious political atmosphere of Northern Ireland, that is something to applaud.
Three years ago, Trimble did a triumphalist jig down Garvaghy Road, in the company of the Rev. Ian Paisley, after Orange marchers were allowed through police barricades. He has angered nationalists and caused dismay in many quarters by allowing the decommissioning issue to become a matter of life or death for the Good Friday agreement, risking everything for a few pounds of Semtex and digging himself into a hole from which he cannot climb.
However, in spite of that and other displays of insensitivity, Trimble has gone further than any Unionist leader before him in trying to build bridges to the nationalist community. He has held regular negotiations with Sinn Fein — something utterly unthinkable for a Unionist even a few years ago. He compromised on the contentious issues of cross-border bodies and the number of departments for the still-to-be-implemented power-sharing executive. The remaining issue that continues to yawn like a gulf between him and most nationalists is his insistence that the paramilitaries begin to disarm before their representatives be allowed into the new government. As the days, weeks and months go by, the issue still defies resolution. The result is likely to be the suspension of the Good Friday peace agreement which, should it occur, he will have to shoulder a tremendous responsibility.
The position that Trimble now finds himself in might be gauged by the hate-filled abuse from local loyalists that he and others received as they arrived at the first of his meetings with the Garvaghy residents. Trimble was denounced as a "Fenian lover" and called "scum."
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Sinn Fein and the IRA should take note. The animosity the Unionist leader has stirred up among those who regard him as a traitor is real and intense. Republicans should not glibly dismiss warnings that if Trimble compromises on decommissioning, he will be doomed as a leader of the Unionist Party.
Considering the political risks he has already taken, he surely deserves a more sympathetic hearing from those on the nationalist side who have seemingly absorbed the not-an-inch mentality that they so frequently claim is a fault of their Protestant neighbors.