Category: Archive

Trimble has rare opportunity to take control of party

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

One waits in vain for David Trimble to say the things he should. One despairs that he can yet prove he is the leader of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as distinct from the Unionist Party. One wonders just what he feels are his true responsibilities.

Yet again, last weekend, he faced a leadership challenge from the anti-Good Friday agreement Unionist rump. This time, the Unionist Council was faced with important challenges indeed.

Led by David Burnside, who has consistently sided with Jeffrey Donaldson, Trimble’s bete noire, the anti-agreement faction opposed the change in the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. There were also proposals to the effect that if changes were made in the name and the insignia, Unionists should not join in any cross-border interparliamentary committees established under the terms of the agreement. They would also withdraw from the Northern Ireland Assembly unless the IRA decommissions all of its weapons by March 1.

Clearly, the anti-agreement faction still poses a serious threat to Trimble’s leadership. People like Donaldson, Burnside, the Rev. Ian Paisley and his DUP cohorts have no intention of sitting down with Sinn Fein or republicans under any circumstances. Indeed, nationalists, who constitute an estimated 40 percent of the population of Northern Ireland and are growing in numerical strength, are anathema to them.

Before the vote by the 900 Unionist Council members was taken, confident anti-agreement delegates predicted they would win handsomely.

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They were wrong. Trimble won. And he did so with an even bigger majority than he enjoyed in the last leadership struggle he had to fight. The majority was 60-40 against the Burnside proposals. It gives the Unionist leader the greatest opportunity he has ever had to say the things he should say.

Alas, that is not likely.

A few days before the latest crisis, the British premier, Tony Blair, and the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, met in Dublin. On the agenda were items of common pressing interest to both governments: the war in Afghanistan, the expansion of the Sellafield nuclear plant, the international drugs trade and the tightening of the political relationships between the neighboring islands as stipulated in the Good Friday agreement.

Although the interparliamentary council has had little press attention, it is a highly significant development in the relationship between the two islands. Both governments recognize that they have important common interests that underpin the need for a closer political relationship and that even within the islands, there is also a bond between the former Celtic territories.

Things move apace, but the Ulster unionists seem absolutely unaware that the world is moving forward with or without them.

In light of these developments, it is time that Trimble take control of his party and established beyond doubt that he is the leader of an assembly that represents all of the people of Northern Ireland. It is also time that he make it clear that this is in accord with the vote of the vast majority on the island in favor of the Good Friday agreement.

He should now take the opportunity to dissemble his critics by outlining the enormous changes in the relationship between the UK and Ireland. He should put this in the context of the enormous changes affecting all of Europe.

Most of all, he should spell out the real political effects of the Good Friday agreement, especially as it relates to the people of Northern Ireland and unionists, in particular.

He should lay it all on the line. He should emphasize that he has responsibilities to Catholics and republicans as well as unionists. He should make it clear that he is not alone prepared to ring the necessary changes but also that he is eager to do so as leader of the assembly.

And he should explain that he is mandated to do so as a signatory to the Good Friday agreement.

He should lay down a clear challenge to the dissidents within his own party and the DUP as to what alternatives they might propose. In particular, he should tackle Donaldson head on.

The stammering, stop-go type of government in Northern Ireland is of no use to the people of this island or the UK.

The sort of sectarianism in North Belfast where schoolchildren were threatened by loyalist bullies for an entire term, sectarianism that sickened a disbelieving world, must be rooted out by Trimble and the members of the Assembly.

It does not really matter what the likes of the hopelessly bigoted Paisley or the reluctant Donaldson may think. They represent only their own followers, a tiny minority within the island as a whole and even more clearly as the result of the weekend vote, a minority within their own territory.

The critical aim for the whole of Ireland is to ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented in full.

Has Trimble the courage to enforce that type of leadership?

So far, the indications have not been good.

Last weekend, Trimble told the anti-agreement faction that he had achieved more progress in decommissioning than what was accomplished by any of their loud threats. In that respect, he is right. But it is now time he pressed home his advantage. The people of Northern Ireland have a deserved reputation for being hardheaded and practical. In particular, they have always recognized the value of the full shilling.

It is time that Trimble move onto this particular set of tracks. The economic advantages, indeed the necessity of cross-border institutions, should be spelled out economically.

The first minister should emphasize the importance of the common interests in both parts of Ireland. By extension, he should also emphasize the changed relationship of the Republic of Ireland, the UK and Europe as a whole. Most of all, he should attack the evil of sectarianism within his own party and within Northern Ireland.

A real leader must educate all of the people of the north about the politics of this rapidly changing Europe.

So far, Trimble, Nobel prize winner though he may be, has not proved himself equal to the task. Worst of all, he does not even seem to appreciate that there is such a task.

He has the opportunity to prove he is a real leader and a powerful leader. We can only live in hope.

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