David Trimble, it is hoped, has learned a salutary lesson : when your position is weak it is always advisable not to risk office or power, your most important asset, in a gamble, knowing that some of your horses want to run in the opposite direction, refuse to run with you or go into another stable.
In the Assembly Executive Plate, as it were, he was loaned a few replacement runners, with their cooperation, temporarily wearing his colours – at the second attempt he jumped the hurdles back into office as First minister which he had put into jeopardy by resigning his post. Of course he will claim that he had achieved a movement on decommissioning which by all accounts had already been on the cards.
I had, in an earlier article, calculated that Trimble could stand the defection of two of his Assembly members and still have sufficient support to retain or be re-elected as First Minister. But in the event he failed by one vote when two of his members voted against or failed to vote for him (one has now been expelled from the party, the other has been suspended).
When this result came through I was somewhat disconcerted that it was necessary for the Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid, to suspend the Assembly for another 24 hour period and have discussions with one of the undesignated parties to persuade them to designate themselves as Unionists for a short time to facilitate Trimble’s re-election. Three Alliance members did this, thus avoiding direct rule and the calling of fresh elections.
Surely, I thought, all they had to do was to use the other method set out in the Belfast Agreement to deal with cross-community issues – i.e. the election of First and Deputy First Minister – under 5(d)(ii), Safeguards Strand One, on page 5 of the Document.
For, using this way and on the basis of the actual votes cast, Trimble would have met the criteria set out therein, 70% (10% more than the minimum) of the total of 108 members and at least 5% more than the minimum of 40% of the 60 designated as Unionists.
However, I had overlooked a stipulation under Executive Authority – Paragraph 15 on page 7, which stated that these two posts (First and Deputy First minister) shall be jointly elected into office by the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis, according to 5 (d) (i) above. Thus, using the alternative was precluded, one simple (i) missing had thrown a spanner into the electoral machinery.
So, like all agreements, insurance policies or any document of importance, the small print and small letters have to be closely scrutinised wherever problems arise or indeed before they do. Still, it has to be acknowledged that when the Agreement was finalised on April 10th 1998 no one could have predicted exactly the number of members of each party who would be elected and the bearing it would have on the percentages set out in the method of elections to office.
The Paisley DUPes took the Secretary of State to court and managed to obtain an injunction to delay the second ministerial election attempt by 24 hours. Following the court’s rejection of their claim and Dr. Reid’s setting of the date of May 2003 for the next Assembly elections the way was cleared for the ministerial election to proceed. The DUP are still questioning the legality of the Secretary of State’s decision and may appeal against the court’s finding. They have, however, reclaimed their two seats on the Executive.
Jeffrey Donaldson, one of Trimble’s dissident Westminster MPs, speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live on the 12th or 13th November, seemed to be marking time on on the issues, whilst he agreed some progress had been made on decommissioning it wasn’t enough. Only General De Chastelain and his colleagues (whose integrity he didn’t question) had seen IRA arms put beyond use but no statement on quantities or types of weapons had been made.
In his view , Donaldson said, unless further such events occurred and indeed all illegally held paramilitary arms were disposed of by February 2002 a fresh crisis would arise to put the whole process into question and David Trimble’s leadership would again be under pressure.
The Secretary of State, it was thought, might have simply used the parliamentary procedure of an Order in Council to change the Assembly voting methods but for the fact that the Agreement is an international treaty involving two governments so this was not possible. To rewrite and re-ratify would be time consuming and complex.
Dr, Reid has agreed to carry out a review of the method of voting which will, I presume, be carried out under the terms set out as ‘Validation, Implementation and Review’ in pages 25 and 26 of the Good Friday Agreement.
There are some changes which may affect the working of the Assembly and its institutions. John Hume has stood down as leader of the SDLP and Seamus Mallon, who was his his deputy, has not stepped into his place and has not stood again for the Deputy First Minister’s post either.
As their leader the SDLP have elected Mark Durkan who, being a member of the Assembly, has been elected jointly with First Minister Ulster Unionist David Trimble as Deputy First Minister.
Seamus Mallon had a fairly good personal relationship with the Unionist leader so Durkan will have to establish an equally successful partnership. Perhaps if Trimble is a little chastened by his recent difficulties an accord will be established early in the new effort to make the system work.
There are certainly more difficulties ahead and pressures to be experienced and resisted and we shall see if politics and politicians in Northern Ireland can really mature and come of age at last.
Although it may only be a straw in the wind Trimble appears to be reconsidering his approach for at his recent party conference, whilst supporting pressure for more decommissioning, he said that Unionists should not be too demanding for immediate fulfilment. They should continue to try to make the institutions set up under the Agreement work.
I would hazard a guess that there will be no more resignation occasions by the First Minister and if the requisite changes in the decision making on cross community issues take place the Assembly will settle down to complete its full term to May 2003.
Postscript: 24 November 2001
The Holy Cross Primary School gauntlet run – through Loyalist protests – is to be temporarily halted by agreement after intervention by First Minister David Trimble and Deputy First minister Mark Durkan. Safety measures and road bumps are part of the agreement.