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Ignoble oratory?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — Vowing to continue their efforts for lasting peace and change in Northern Ireland, SDLP leader and the North’s first minister, David Trimble, accepted their joint Nobel Peace Prize last Thursday at an awards ceremony in Oslo City Hall in Norway.

But as is often the case in the divisive world of Northern Irish politics, the ceremony was not without controversy. Soon after the two men had accepted their gold medals, nationalist leaders in Ireland were lashing out angrily at what they perceived as David Trimble’s mean-spirited use of the Nobel podium.

Depending on one’s point of view, the first minister’s acceptance speech was either a lengthy and deliberate insult to Irish nationalism, Sinn Fein and his fellow honoree, John Hume, or one of the finest political speeches of the decade.

For some, it came as little surprise that Trimble chose the world stage to lash out at Irish republicans, calling them fascists and Nazis. What was astonishing to others, however, was his apparently calculated attempt to denigrate Hume as a "dreamer" and visionary — and his apparent effort to force the SDLP’s hand in isolating Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness called Trimble’s speech "abusive, mean-spirited, spiteful and heavily provocative." Privately, the SDLP was also taken aback by its tone, full of heavy reservations about the future of the peace process.

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There was also surprise at Trimble’s open honoring of the contribution made to his speech by the Cork-born former Official IRA/Workers’ Party supporter Eoghan Harris, who frequently eulogizes the Ulster Unionist Party leader in his writings.

Harris claimed that "tribal" Irish journalists were "begrudgers" who had missed the point that Trimble had referred to the old Stormont as a "cold house for Catholics." Others said this admitted concession had been quickly followed up with a claim that nationalists had at least a roof over their heads, which they had tried to burn down.

One of Trimble’s loyal supporters, Esmond Birnie, said those who criticized the speech were "spiteful and jealous," but William Lafferty, a U.S. citizen and professor of politics at Oslo university, said it was the least noble Nobel speech he had witnessed in 30 years of watching the award.

It was, said Lafferty, "flippant, implicitly critical of John Hume, politically self-serving, embarrassingly atavistic and destructive." The speech certainly sparked debate, with both detractors and supporters clashing on the airwaves and in the newspapers.

"We have a few fanatics who dream of forcing Ulster British people into a Utopian Irish state," Trimble said in Oslo. But a few fanatics only became a problem if they "buried themselves within a morally legitimate political movement," he added in a clear reference to Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Each "reformist group has a moral obligation to deal with its own fanatics," Trimble said, calling on the SDLP to support him against Sinn Fein on decommissioning and claiming it was "not too much to ask."

We cannot, he said, "ignore the existence of evil," criticizing the "appeasing strand in western politicians" who "sometime seem to think that dealing with fascists is a game where one won’t get hurt."

He said he would be guilty of a dereliction of duty if he did not point to the "specters at the feast," the "fascist forces" in the world, of "political and racial terrorism" that "pollutes the progressive achievements of humanity."

Trimble made repeated references to the "Ulster British" people and their traditions, and insisted he had not pressed for precise dates quantities and a manner for IRA decommissioning, just for a "credible beginning."

He went on to say that he could not forever "convince society that peace is at hand if there is not a beginning to the decommissioning of weapons." Any further delay would reinforce "dark doubts about whether Sinn Fein are drinking from the clear stream of democracy or still drinking from the dark stream of fascism."

Hume themes familiar

In stark contrast to Trimble’s sharply controversial speech, Hume’s drew heavily on familiar themes of reconciliation and common struggle to improve community relations and accommodate diversity.

"Our Assembly is proportionately elected so that all sections of our people are represented," he said. "Any new administration or government will be proportionately elected by the members of the Assembly, so that all sections will be working together.

"There will also be institutions between both parts of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland that will also respect diversity and work the common ground."

Once they are in place, said Hume, the healing process could begin to erode the distrusts and prejudices of the past and a new society would evolve based on agreement and respect.

"It is now up to political leaders on all sides to move decisively to fulfill the mandate given by the Irish people to safeguard and cherish peace by establishing agreed structures for peace that will forever remove the underlying causes of violence and division on our island," Hume said.

In choosing Hume and Trimble, the Nobel committee said that both men had been the foremost of those who placed themselves in the struggle for peace in Northern Ireland. Hume and Trimble received gold medals and a shared check for more than $950,000.

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