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Trimble blasts Republic, calls for border vote

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Chris Thornton

BELFAST — Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble was heading for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the White House this week under a cloud of criticism from nationalist leaders after making an outspoken attack on the Republic of Ireland.

The Ulster Unionist leader ensured himself an uncomfortable encounter with Irish America by calling the Republic “the pathetic sectarian, mono-ethnic, monocultural state to our south.” He made the remarks to a party meeting just three days before flying to Washington to join celebrations of Irish culture.

Nationalists, led by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and some Southern Protestants roundly condemned the remarks. The criticism soured Trimble’s efforts —

outlined in the same speech — to make Northern Ireland’s place in the UK more palatable to Northern Catholics.

Ironically, the reaction to his remarks overshadowed Trimble’s efforts to stimulate the debate on a united Ireland. Telling the Ulster Unionist Council, his party’s ruling body, that he was prepared to “call the republican’s bluff,” Trimble proposed a referendum on the border to take place during next year’s Assembly election.

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He said the vote would “kill the issue for a generation because I am quite sure the result will be an overwhelming endorsement of the Union.”

The referendum plan was widely perceived as clever politics: it is vote Unionists are almost certain to win, and it would unify his fractured party around the one thing they agree about. A referendum would also bring out an apathetic bloc of middle ground Unionist voters who would be expected to bolster the Ulster Unionists against the threat from the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists.

But Trimble’s political smarts were contrasted by the bluntness of his unnecessary attack on the Republic, which even some of his allies were at a loss to explain.

Trimble justified the remarks by saying they were “self-evident” and the “nature of the reality of the state.” He made the attack seconds after telling his party that it could not afford to alienate Catholics.

Several commentators in Belfast suggested the comments were typical of the enigmatic shifts between Trimble as the visionary, Nobel Peace Prize winner who led Unionists to the Good Friday agreement, and the Orangeman who played a significant role in past Drumcree protests.

Shortly before leaving Ireland for the U.S., Trimble said his critics were “overreacting and taking something out of context.”

“The context is, and it’s something I have said many times before, the contrast between a liberal, multi-national state such as the United Kingdom, on one hand, and, on the other hand, a monocultural state which is not as liberal as the United Kingdom,” he said.

Ahern criticized Trimble for making his attack on the Republic while portraying Northern Ireland as a place that “respects the identity of all and threaten none” and “offers stability and flexibility.”

“If you look at his description of how he painted Northern Ireland, and painted the Republic of Ireland, I don’t think any fair observer would identify either from his description,” Ahern said.

The Rev. Frank Sellar of Dublin’s Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church said Trimble’s comments were “quite the opposite” of life in the Republic for many Protestants.

“Society is changing,” he told the Irish News. “If that is the perception of the Irish Republic of 30 or 40 years ago, it is certainly not the case at the moment. It is wrong to give the impression that Protestants in the South are longing to be British. That is not the case. We are glad to be Irish and proud to take our place in the world.”

John Paterson, dean of Dublin’s Anglican cathedral, added that the Irish capital was “more ethnically mixed than Belfast will ever be.”

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who sits on the Northern Ireland Executive with Trimble, said: “It’s about time the Nobel Peace Prize winner stopped behaving like a twit and recognized that there is a peace process out there. We all have work at it. We all have roads to travel. All of us have some distance to go, but some of us have further to go than others.”

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