The reaction from nationalist leaders has been sharp and critical. Martine McGuinness of Sinn Fein denounced it as a “full frontal attack on the Good Friday agreement.” Mark Durkan, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, accused Trimble of trying to wreck the agreement. This in a way is to be expected. The North is already in election mode, though the election for the new assembly is still at least six months away, regardless of whether the UUP carries out its threat in January.
So it is not surprising that the SDLP does not want to be seen as less outspoken on this crisis than Sinn Fein, its rivals for the nationalist vote. Trimble, we can be sure, will get little sympathy from that quarter. But does he indeed deserve it? After all, has he not helped set off a whole series of crises in the last three years, which have pushed the peace process to the edge of the abyss time and again?
A clear look at what is going on beneath the surface of the Irish peace process reveals that there is more than one crisis — that within unionism — that is complicating the chance for progress. There is a profound crisis within militant republicanism that is facing the prospect of being absorbed into a purely political process, which means having to abandon the armed struggle for good. Not surprisingly, it has been reluctant to confront this transformation in as candid a way as David Trimble is not demanding. It has done so in dribs and drabs, with the leadership making bold, but temporary gestures, such as decommissioning, which implicitly recognize the reality that looms before it. This is no longer enough for Ulster’s Unionists. Trimble has been forced into a position of having to accept this fact and act on it if he wants to have any hope of fending off a challenge from anti-agreement forces.
The surest way of seeing the IRA dissolve is by proving that politics works, and by allowing politics to work. But by pressing the countdown button Trimble risks doing the opposite. He also risks the self-defeating outcome of strengthening Sinn Fein’s electoral prospects and undermining those of the SDLP, which would be inclined to lend him a more sympathetic ear.