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How David Trimble became a victim of the culture of spin
A TEMPTATION FOR MANY when it conies to ethnic conflict, is to draw parallels. This activity is often done by the protagonists themselves. The IRA's close links with the Basque terrorist group ETA, and its professed sympathy for the PLO and ANC, are strategies devised to confer on Catholics in Northern Ireland the status of victims — during the recent trouble in North Belfast, members of Sinn Fein repeatedly stressed that thanks to attacks from Loyalist terrorists, many Catholics felt like they were living in "1950s Alabama". And in doing so, the inference is made that Ulster Unionists can be compared to Afrikaaners or the Ku Klux Klan, entities generally looked upon with much disfavour.
Since David Trimble became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1995, he has been continually urged by Republicans to be the "FW De Klerk" of his people. Naturally, such allusions to upholders of apartheid are not warmly endorsed by Unionists, and David Trimble has attempted to invert attempts to portray Ulster Protestants as the apocryphal "baddies" — once dubbing Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness the ICaradzic and Mladic of Northern Ireland.
Whatever the validity of such comparisons, if Trimble is, or was, the De Klerk of Northern Ireland, then a gutsy and admirable one he is, or was, too. With the triumph of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party in last month's general election, an organisation that makes no bones of its explicitly and one might say exclusivist Free Presbyterianism ethos (witness Dr Paisley's recent condemnation of line-dancing), it is timely to consider just how far Trimble has come since he did that jig with Paisley at Drumcree in 1995.
AFTER THE REAL IRA murdered 29 people at Omagh in 1998, Trimble attended the Catholic funeral service of three young boys killed in the explosion. In April the following year, in an extraordinary move, he went to Rome and had an audience of the Holy Father. Recently, one of his projects had been to break the UUP's link with the Orange Order. When one thinks that he is a leader of a party the members of which used to boast in Stormont how few Catholics they employed, it is astonishing that Trimble still commands such loyalty within his party as he can still count on.
It seems, however, that he could only take "his people" so far. It is with some justification that many Unionists are accused of being unduly obsessed with the guns of the IRA. Indeed, it is tempting to think that if the IRA did disarm, then Unionists would erect a new obstacle to ensure that Republicans would be deprived of some power. But simi larly, one may argue that Unionists might not be so obsessed with the decommissioning issue did they not feel that Ulster is facing a security crisis thanks to the perceived emasculation of the RUC.
As it stands, people of both religions are suffering because of a breakdown in policing in the North. The recent standoff in the Ardoyne was allowed to happen because there was no-one who felt able to deal with Loyalist and Republican terrorists engaged in a seedy turf war, for whom crying primary school children were used as a loathsome propaganda tool. Because of this policing vacuum, those IRA guns hidden away are a bigger threat than they might otherwise be.
And as it stands, Trimble could not simply let the decommissioning issue pass him by. Because of it, his party experienced debilitating set-backs in the general election, and another defeat of that magnitude would have surely led to his ejection. Trimble will have seen what happened to Ehud Barak. A man who goes so far to accommodate, that he loses the trust of his people and thus his job, is no good to anybody. A Trimble in the wilderness would have no remote possibility of taking his people forward. A Trimble hovering on the margins may still be useful one day.
WHAT HAS REALLY FAILED here is the hope placed on ambiguity. The Belfast Agreement was a masterpiece in mutual obfuscation, a document designed to assure both sides that they had won. It was a classic piece of New Labour jiggery-pokery, in which spin was presented as fact, in which sweet-sounding rhetoric was meant to act as a viable substitute for hard-headed, clearlystated policy. Mo Mowlam used to protest that paramilitary decommissioning was "not a requirement but an obligation", two words that to most people are synonymous. Trimble had to resign because he thought they were and took it as literally written that decommissioning would happen. He had to resign because on April 10, 1998, Tony Blair promised in writing that Sinn Fein would be excluded from the Assembly if the IRA had not began to decommission by the approved deadline. Now two deadlines have passed.
David Trimble has been as much of a De Klerk as he possibly can, and at least for the time being has not as yet met the same fate as Barak. The Good Friday Agreement was a gamble for all participants, but mostly for the New Labour Government. Tony Blair is a well-intentioned man, but one of his foibles is trying to please everybody all of the time. Trimble had to resign last week because he was a victim of the culture of spin.