At the Ulster Unionist Party’s council meeting on October 28, David Trimble managed to prevent an early derailment of the peace process by a 10% margin, 55% to 45%, against a proposal from the young pretender, Jeffrey Donaldson.
The latter argued that Ulster Unionists should withdraw from the Executive if the IRA had not commenced to decommission arms by November 30, a proposal which Trimble called ‘a letter to Santa Claus’. The alternative put forward by the party leader was that he would bar Sinn Féin from cross border institutions unless the IRA started to decommission and that all other activities of government would continue, subject to another party meeting reviewing the position in January 2001.
Trimble claims that he has taken legal advice, which supports his authority to take such action. An objective examination of the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement, will, in my view, show this to be a very dubious adventure, and, to be taken seriously, he must state under which section of the Agreement he is empowered to take this step.
It has to be understood that the IRA was, and is, not a party to the Agreement, but nevertheless, without the Provisionals putting into place a ceasefire and sticking to it, the settlement of April 10, 1998 would not have been possible.
Although outside the concord they have undertaken to cooperate with the Commission on Decommissioning and, as the inclusive Executive functions effectively and continues to do so, the IRA could assist and reinforce the passage to peace by an overt destruction of armaments as a symbol of their intentions.
If the knife edge balance of support for the whole process is to be replaced by a more solid basis in the Unionist community they will have to realise the necessity for such a demonstration. It is not sufficient to engender trust for them just to have a further inspection of arms dumps by the international monitors. Too many lives have been lost on both sides for any group to play politics and risk rekindling the violence of the last three decades only to have to arrive back to the same sort of consensus and rebuild N. Ireland society along the lines presently contained in the agreement of April 10, 1998.
However, that said, the danger to the whole peace process arises mainly from the internal cracks within the Ulster Unionist Party and the wrong signals given by placating the demands from some of their hardliners.
I still believe and fear that there is another agenda being pursued by Trimble, namely stalling the process so that it becomes an issue in the Westminster general election next year. Against this possibility he is trying to extract concessions on the reform of the RUC via alternatives in the legislation implementing the Patten Report.
Historically, on several occasions when problems in respect of the British / Irish conflict have failed to be resolved, it has been because of internal British political divisions frustrating a settlement. The Unionist parties have a long association with this approach and are quite capable of continuing this line in the hope of advantage via their ties with British Conservatives.
Sinn Féin have responded to the latest twist in Unionist convolutions by calling for a meeting of the Governing Executive and question the right of David Trimble as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party to implement that party’s decision in his role as First Minister.
The system of government as set out in the Good Friday Accord does not enshrine the right of the First Minister or other ministers to implement unilaterally their own party’s policies. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s recent action on the flying of flags on official buildings, overriding Sinn Féin ministers, underlines that fact.
The role of the government of the Irish Republic has to be considered as well as other parties in the executive. I would anticipate that the SDLP might decline to participate in cross border institutions if Sinn Féin is barred as they have also to consider the effect of Trimble’s questionable action on their electoral support. The Irish government may consider it politic to avoid cross border institutions except at the level of contact between officials. This would negate the effect of Trimble’s bar, a Stormont farce, although a possible tragedy for the peace process.
It may well be that until the next Westminster election takes place that the whole process will be moribund in Limbo. Unless, of course, by high level intervention by Prime Minister Blair, Taoiseach Ahern and in the dying weeks of his presidency, Bill Clinton.
Perhaps it is too much to expect that before Christmas in this millennium year sufficient gestures can be forthcoming from all sides to enter 2001 with more confidence that progress will be made and maintained. In the words of the Secretary of State, today, October 30, :”It is now or never” for the Agreement to be implemented.
The Ulster Unionist Party and others are of course aware that Peter Mandelson is the designated head of his own party’s election strategy and may have another urgent reason for wrapping up the situation one way or another.