Post-St. Patrick’s Day, the political landscape of Northern Ireland looks decidedly bleak. It is drenched in the harsh light of Northern realities, for those who have eyes to see. Most immediately obvious is the dangerous position in which the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, now finds himself.
Trimble must confront his party’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, this Saturday, March 25, at its annual conference. He has come under severe attack from some of his colleagues in recent days because of the statement he made while in Washington last week that indicated a willingness to go back into government with Sinn Fein without some IRA arms decommissioning first taking place. His attempts to show that his words were not a concession, a cave-in made as a result of pressure from the Clinton administration, have not convinced the anti-Good Friday agreement faction within the UUP and have disturbed some of those who until now have supported him.
However, far more threatening is the move to present a motion for discussion at the Ulster Unionist Council meeting that would, if passed, block the party from ever going back into government unless the British back down on their proposal to change the name of the North’s Royal Ulster Constabulary. That name change is part of Britain’s commitment to implement the recommendations of the Patten Commission on Policing, whose report and recommendations on police reforms included the name change, among others.
If the Ulster Unionist Council agrees to this, it will be in effect imposing another, impossible precondition on the implementation of the Good Friday deal. It would, in effect, doom any hope of a reinstatement of the power-sharing government for the foreseeable future. Local politics would, in other words, go into the deep freeze.
One way or another, it would probably also spell the end of Trimble as the UUP’s leader. But much more important, it would doom the Good Friday agreement and almost certainly, eventually, the peace process itself.
Trimble’s internal party troubles have always had a tendency to become externalized, and in a way that they invariably create major problems for the entire political process. The RUC motion, if passed by the Ulster Unionist Council, would consummate that tendency with a vengeance.
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In the Sinn Fein camp, things are hardly any better. In Washington, D.C., last weekend, the party’s president, Gerry Adams, clearly looked like a man under severe pressure. Ominous rumors are emanating from republican quarters in Northern Ireland concerning the weakening of the position of those most central to the current strategy, namely Adams and Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein chief negotiator and former education minister in the short-lived power-sharing experiment.
What that means for the peace process is not yet clear. What it means for the political process is perhaps easier to discern. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s calls for the republican movement to respond to Trimble’s Washington initiative (assuming it survives the Ulster Unionist Council on March 25) will almost certainly fall on deaf ears.
Despite Trimble’s statement, the St. Patrick’s Day gatherings in Washington this year seemed to have produced no bounce, other than to bounce him into hot water with his own party. The British Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, held a follow-up meeting with Brian Cowen, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, on March 21. But even that has not created any sense that the process is moving forward. It was an anti-climax to Washington and, if anything, reinforced the prevailing sense of paralysis that has over taken the political process since the suspension of the 8-week-old power-sharing government on Feb. 11.
That process has entered its most dangerous phase, made more so by signs from the North, where already there is trouble on the streets — an early indication that this year’s marching season could be more volatile than ever. Last week four men were arrested and charged after they were discovered with 500 pounds of explosives in their car, Police are exploring possible links to the Real IRA, the republican splinter group responsible for the August 1998 Omagh bombing.
Though unlikely to happen, a positive result at the Ulster Unionist Council gathering, with Trimble blocking the RUC motion and winning support for reentry into government on the terms he outlined on St. Patrick’s Day in Washington, would inject much-needed momentum into the process. Otherwise, it is doomed to remain stuck for the foreseeable future, with potentially disastrous consequences.