Category: Archive

Power to the People Trimble prevails in Unionist vote

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — There was high drama on the stage of the Waterfront Hall, Northern Ireland’s modernistic icon to a hoped-for new age, when more than 800 members of the Ulster Unionist grassroots came to vote last Saturday on whether to go into government with Sinn Féin.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, won the vote, but not by as much as he had wanted, and only at the price of promising to resign as first minister, at a reconvened UUC meeting in February, if the IRA hasn’t decommissioned by then.

The vote, which came at the end of an intense and heated debate, was 480 votes in favor to 349 votes against, 58 percent to 42.

Final approval for the deal worked out by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, however, was put off until February, contingent on a start to IRA decommissioning.

After the vote, Trimble declared, "We’ve done our bit, Mr. Adams. It’s over to you. We’ve jumped, you follow."

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Trimble took everyone, including Sinn Féin, by surprise when he revealed to the meeting that he had already written a post-dated letter of resignation, and would be expecting his three ministers to do the same.

The letters would be activated in the event of the IRA failing to decommission by the end of January.

He also announced the Ulster Unionist Council would be reconvened in February to review the situation on decommissioning then.

At the last minute, in what was widely perceived as a stage-managed decision, Trimble’s deputy leader, John Taylor, decided to back him. Taylor said his decision to line up alongside Trimble followed "private and confidential assurances" from Britain’s Northern Secretary, Peter Mandelson, understood to be a three-page handwritten letter.

Arriving at the Waterfront, Taylor said he was satisfied that the "default mechanism" to dismantle the executive if decommissioning did not happen would be put into place sooner than previously expected.

"I have received two private and confidential assurances from the secretary of state," he said. "I am now reassured that Unionists will not be trapped into a system of government with Sinn Féin without IRA decommissioning."

There was no sign of the split or resignations that some suggested could result from a badly split vote. The most vociferous critic of the power-sharing deal, MP Jeffrey Donaldson, claimed that he had won "significant concessions" from Trimble.

William Thompson, one of six MPs opposed to the deal, at first said he would be resigning, but on Tuesday he said he was reconsidering because if he resigned he would be ineligible to attend and vote at the February reconvened meeting.

Crisis postponed?

It seems that Trimble’s new ultimatum to the IRA may merely swap last week’s crisis for another six weeks down the road. Sinn Féin immediately warned that the unionist threat to collapse the executive was outside the terms of the Mitchell deal.

Party President Gerry Adams warned that deferral of the final decision would fuel uncertainty. "Today’s result is progress but it is short-term and fragmented instead of strategic and holistic," Adams said.

While it was a matter of political judgment how Trimble dealt with his own party, this was "the wrong way to go," Adams said. "It will fuel uncertainty and keep alive the hopes of rejectionists, inside and outside the Ulster Unionist Party," he predicted.

"The introduction of a probationary period was never mentioned during the 11 weeks of the Mitchell Review (talks). It is clearly outside the terms of the Mitchell Review and the Good Friday Agreement."

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness said he was disappointed, warning that the unionist ultimatum would make the disarmament process even more difficult. "It was not a decisive step forward. It was a jump forward to uncertainty," he said.

"Our job is to create the circumstances and conditions which make it possible for the armed groups to destroy their weaponry, or decommission, or whatever they want to do in a voluntary way."

He said General de Chastelain, chair of the international commission on decommissioning, should be allowed to do his job without interference. "I expect David Trimble to work with the rest of us to create the conditions which will make it possible for the armed groups to decommission."

"If we implement the agreement in good faith, it is possible to achieve that objective, but the jury is out on what the unionists are at. I give them credit for the decision, but people should not enter new elements into this that have not been agreed between us during the course of our discussions."

The British prime minister, Tony Blair, said the UUP result was "further positive endorsement" of the peace process. "I pay tribute once more to the leadership of David Trimble and of the other political leaders in Northern Ireland who continue to drive the process forward," he said.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also praised the vote. "In time, today will be seen as a milestone in breaking the logjam, and allowing the Good Friday agreement to go on," he said.

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