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Indeed, if the stakes weren't so high, the sight of nationalist and republican leaders almost tripping over each other as they rushed before the cameras to express their support and sympathy for Mr Trimble's courageous stand would have made for fine satire
- Ronan Fanning

Anthony McIntyre • 18.09.02

David Trimble faces yet another challenge this weekend from his opponents, not all of whom can so easily be slotted into Paul Bew's 'stupid unionism' pigeon hole. Some harbour leadership ambitions within their heads rather than vast amounts of nothingness. And with an election only months away the antagonisms will be sharpened and fashioned into stilettos. It is the ninth such 'crisis' for Trimble. For Jeffrey Donaldson it is the ninth turning point at which he will have failed to turn for the ninth time, if he keeps faith with past performances. That would leave Trimble out-doing those legendary cats in terms of lives, acquiring a record tenth.

The problems that Trimble persistently faces are in one sense symptomatic of a cultural difference between unionism and republicanism. Despite unionism historically having had a very anti-democratic outlook towards anyone outside the unionist camp, internally it has been much more democratic than republicanism given the latter's cultivation of a Stalinist ethos which seemingly produces presidents for life. Unlike republicanism, unionism seems to display traits that would militate against a leader emerging who could hold on to power for twenty years. Although Gerry Adams has on occasion said ‘we in the Sinn Fein leadership pride ourselves on the way that we engage with the grassroots’ the view expressed by Tyrone republican Fergal O'Donnell after the first act of IRA decommissioning in 2001 offers a much more nuanced assessment of the matter: ‘Trimble and his party aren't afraid to say what their bottom line is … whereas nobody outside of a small clique of an inner circle of republicans really knows what's happening on our side.’

Symbolising the essence and origins of Trimble's current problems was the comment Gerry Adams made at the 1998 Sinn Fein gathering which approved the Good Friday Agreement. Saying 'well done David' because the unionist leader had sold the agreement to the UUP was a mere ruse by the republican leader to disguise how poorly Sinn Fein performed during the negotiations. (Although there is an alternative view that Sinn Fein performed precisely as some leadership elements intended). In those three-strand negotiations, one and two would form the body of any future settlement. Strand three was for the optics. Trimble devoted his energies to Strand two assuming, not unreasonably, that, because it dealt with the constitutional and geographical integrity of the Northern Ireland state, to halt republicanism at the border pass was the most crucial consideration. As Deaglán de Bréadún, of the Irish Times put it in 2002:

Trimble succeeded in reducing the scope and number of cross-Border bodies very dramatically … the final list was anodyne and unthreatening … As an intelligent politician and strategic thinker, Mr Trimble was obviously aware that constitutional issues were much more important than transient difficulties such as prisoner releases or decommissioning.

Gerry Adams admitted as much in saying that the cross border bodies were ‘too weak for a republican, but still we went along with that.’

Any gains that republicanism could make in strand one would all fall under the rubric of an internal settlement, something which republicans had foresworn never to settle for. Their failure in this respect can be measured from some observations made by Anne Cadwallader - by no means sympathetic to unionism or hostile to republicanism - in November 2001: 'It's not a complete blank sheet for Nationalists or Republicans, of course. There are cross-border bodies - although possibly less far-reaching than those envisaged at Sunningdale in 1974 - and there is police reform.' Such concise commentary makes it clear why ‘Victory 74’ has been ‘transitionally’ postponed to 2016.

When Adams uttered those words ‘well done David’ he was strumming a suspicious chord in the unionist mindset. Immediately, enough were inclined to feel that if republicans could embrace something it must be suspect. Stephen King summed it up a couple of years ago in Segovia by saying that for a substantial body of unionist opinion the Good Friday Agreement seemed such a poor return for republicanism - many of whose adherents had given their lives to achieve so much more - that it must be a booby trap unionists were being asked to pick up. Gift horses for unionists are invariably of the Trojan type.

So, no surprise it was to be informed by Rosie Cowan of the Guardian that ‘Protestants have always been much more lukewarm in their support for the agreement than the Catholic community. Only 55% voted for it in the referendum, compared to 96% of nationalists.’

Trimble, being, as Adams said, ‘very good at what he does … a skilled politician’, was too astute not to realise the defeat he had inflicted on republicanism. He would later shrewdly comment, ‘the only consolation republicans have today is the sight of our self-destructive displays of division. It is on this basis that they sell the process which has a partitionist reality at its core.’

And nothing has changed. The last remaining obstacle to Provisional republicanism becoming Provisional Fianna Fail wholly immersed in the structures of the state it vowed to bring down rather than serve in is the policing question. And as Maurice Hayes claimed:

What few seem to have noticed is that republicans, who had demanded the disbandment of the RUC should now be calling for the implementation of the Patten Report which clearly does nothing of the sort.

Yet, as ever, there remain unionists who seem determined to amuse us by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Trimble safeguarded the union and forced republicans to accept the consent principle. He presented his party with a Northern Ireland shaped cake. Attacking Trimble on the colour of the cake - basically the configuration of the internal solution - does demonstrate that for some unionists having that cake is not enough, they want to eat it too in an act of self-devouring political cannibalism.

When the journalist Liam Clarke wrote in October 1998 that the only viable settlement was one where the ‘political class can pig out on democracy until it is bloated and fat and content’, this was hardly the type of feasting he had in mind.







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The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen.
- Tommy Smothers

Index: Current Articles

19 September 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Belfast's "Poor White Trash" and the Dead Dogmas of the Past
Brian Kelly


Top Cat

Anthony McIntyre


Lower Than The Lowest of the Low
Liam O Ruairc


Civil Rights Vets Launch Status Campaign
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Peace Rather than Pipedreams
Sean Smyth


Bush War
Anthony McIntyre


15 September 2002


Suppression of Dissent: What it is and what to do about it
Brian Martin


Chief Constable Orde
Terry O'Neill


Yes, Yes, RUC, It's The Force to Set Us Free

Anthony McIntyre


2 Quit Human Rights Commission
October Fifth Association


What's Good For the Goose
Anthony McIntyre


A Burning Issue
Davy Carlin




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