Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s recently successful party meeting, at which he was reelected unopposed, was marred by an intemperate attack on the Irish Republic. Trimble declared that the “state to our south” was a “pathetic,” “sectarian,” “mono-ethnic and monocultural” backwater. This by way of explaining why even the idea of a united Ireland was outlandish.
However, what is really outlandish is the out-of-date nature of the Unionist leader’s remarks. Clearly, he has not taken a stroll across St. Stephen’s Green in some time or he would have noticed the ethnic — and linguistic — diversity to be encountered in the nation’s capital. Rural Ireland no doubt is different and continues on some of its old, traditional “mono-cultural” ways. But then the same can be said of Ballymena. Rural communities tend to be mono-ethnic: that is their charm.
We have come to expect a sort of bad-tempered, churlishness from Trimble over the years, and his outburst last week could well be put down to another example of it. However, we should not simply ascribe this attack to a fit of temper. It took place in the highly politicized environment of the Ulster Unionist Council, the party’s ruling body, which was meeting last weekend to decide on the party and its leader’s future. At previous such meetings, Trimble had to brace himself for challenges to his leadership, and angry opponents accusing him of not doing enough to defend the police, the Union, Ulster’s heritage, and allowing concession after concession to go to republicans. This time, the potentially explosive issues of an amnesty for wanted men, which is being considered by the British government, and continuing unease over decommissioning, were ticking away in the background.
Trimble’s verbal blitzkrieg had the effect of changing the subject. He lobbed insults at the Irish Republic and at the same time launched a demand for a border poll. Both things, he knew, would warm the hearts of his fellow unionists. And so they have. As a result, Trimble had the kind of conference that would have been unthinkable a year or even less ago.
Unfortunately, regardless of what points he may have scored for political deftness, it had to be achieved at the cost of delivering a hurtful, silly and outmoded critique on Northern Ireland’s neighbor. Irish political leaders must be biting their lips as they listened to a Northern unionist calling their state “sectarian.” Where are all the pipe bombs falling, the Irish taoiseach might asked.
He did not, showing a level of maturity and sophistication in response to Trimble’s attack that the Unionist leader might do well to emulate.
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