Saving Private Trimble

Posted By: March 29, 2013

The Downing Street mantra that there can be no peace process without Trimble risks wrecking the Good Friday Agreement. Tony Blair is repeating the mistake of trying to impose the democratic leaders he wants.

The Observer. Sunday May 11, 2003
Paul Donovan
Sunday May 11, 2003

If the Northern Ireland peace process is to progress then Tony Blair is going to have to tackle the problem of David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party veto.

The British Government’s decision to delay the elections to the Northern Ireland assembly on the premise of the IRA’s lack of commitment to the peace process could well backfire.

The peace process has been stagnated for many months now, since the Northern Ireland Assembly was first dissolved. Positions are becoming entrenched amid a steady background drip of scandals re-emerging from the past. In the longer term, Tony Blair has problems over what he is going to do with Sir John Stevens’ report into collusion and the findings of the international judge Peter Cory who was put in charge of examining a number of cases with a view to possible judicial inquiries. With these background issues further muddying the water, putting off the elections could simply make matters more difficult in the longer term.

To move the peace process forward the Prime Minister needs to address the issue of the unionist veto. While pushing for peace and for the most part giving the Northern Ireland process his undivided attention over the past five years the Prime Minister has constantly been pulled up by his achilles’ heal, namely the unionist veto. Though the recent decision to postpone the Northern Ireland assembly elections, which were set to be held on 29 May, suggests that this needs to be redefined as the Trimble veto.

Throughout the peace process Blair has repeatedly succumbed to the need to save Trimble. Whenever the UUP leader calls for the Assembly to be dissolved Downing Street meekly obliges without question. There has effectively been a mantra established in Downing Street that there can be no peace process without Trimble.

The present focus on IRA weapons is the latest not very subtle exercise to save Trimble’s bacon. Elections in May would have seen Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party of Ian Paisley triumphing to the cost of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionists respectively.

Blair’s backing for Trimble is, however, consistent with his undemocratic record of imposing leaders that people do not want. What really seems to worry Blair is democracy itself. Remember the Prime Minister’s obsession with stopping Ken Livingstone becoming the elected London Mayor. Then there was Rhodri Morgan in Wales and the expulsion of Dennis Canavan from the Labour Party in Scotland. In this context, the support for the unpopular Trimble has some resonance. It doesn’t of course augur well for those future dreams of democracy brought to the people of Iraq, courtesy of the Blair and Bush partnership. There are also the lessons of history over putting too much faith in and individual leader rather than a democratic process. It can be argued that the shambles that is modern day Russia is testimony to putting too much faith and resources into the the person of Boris Yeltsin. The same could prove to be the case with the administration of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

Surprisingly to some perhaps there are many in th Republican movement who believe that they can do business with the Democratic Unionist Party, despite the latters opposition to power sharing. There is a rarely publically mentioned view that though Ian Paisley would never work with the Republicans, Peter Robinson would. Robinson is part of the new guard coming up in the DUP, set to take over from Paisley when he retires. It has also been notable that some DUP ministers who have held portfolios in the Northern Ireland executive are perceived as having done a good job. The fact that Republicans hold such a view underlines the anachronism that Trimble has become.

The reality in Northern Ireland is that Trimble’s ridiculous posturing and the British Government’s continued backing for him are what really threatens the future of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), not IRA arms. The Republicans have kept their word regarding the non-use of weaponery for more than the last five years. They want to make the Good Friday Agreement work because they know they have a lot to gain from it. It should though be added here that the reticence of the IRA to play along with Downing Street’s game of saving Private Trimble also had something to do with the likely gains that the Republican movement would have made in the elections. Why declare your hand when the political landscape could change to such a degree inside a couple of months?

If there is a real threat of violence it comes not from the Republicans but the 138,000 plus guns held in Unionist hands. The British media and Westminister based politicians find it easy to focus on the IRA because the ongoing violence of Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland is simply not reported. Over recent months, there have been pipe bombings, attempted abductions and intimidation of Catholic citzens by the Loyalists. The chaplain of Holy Cross girl’s school, Father Aidan Troy has been repeatedly targeted with death threats. Yet almost none of this has been reported in the British media. Indeed, the non-reporting of Loyalist violence over the past few years has verged on a news blackout at times.

Meanwhile, events like the Castlereagh break-in and the so called espionage ring at Stormont are spun out in order to discredit the Republican movement.

In the Castlereagh case, more than a year after the event there has been no evidence produced to suggest anything other than that this was a security service inside job. There has also been precious little evidence put into the public domain to justify the heavy handed raid launched by the Police Service of Northern Ireland on Stormont over the so called espionage allegations. An event that conveniently enabled Trimble to withdraw from the executive and led to the collapsing of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The latest hiccup underlines a basic fault line that has run through the peace process from the outset, namely the status of the British government as honest broker. Recent events confirm the essential nature of the problem. Time and again the British government has come to damn the Republicans in order to bail out the Unionists. These are not the actions of an even handed broker. Both Loyalists and Republicans have at various times regarded the British as a combatant in the troubles, not an impartial referee. This belief has been underlined recently with publication of Sir John Stevens report exposing collusion between army, police and paramilitary groups.

When the GFA was first engineered this role of the British Government was offset by giving the Irish government a balancing role. However, this has proved an inadequate balance given the recent events that have seen Downing Street delaying the assembly elections in order to bail out Trimble. All the other parties to the GFA, including the Irish Government, thought the elections should have gone ahead. The Irish government it would seem has come to represent the role junior rather than joint broker in the process. Many have argued and still do today that an international neutral body like the UN is required to oversee the process.

The reality is that the peace process will only move forward when the Good Friday Agreement is implemented in full as intended. For this to happen, the British government must cut its links with Trimble and defy the Unionist veto. Until then it would seem the whole process will continue to be prostituted to the cause of saving David Trimble.