by Gary Kent________________
It's often said that the key cultural difference between Protestants and Catholics is that the former study the text and the latter are impressed by the context. Hence David Trimble's refusal to accept Sinn Féin's private words on decommissioning which turned out to be tame in print. Unionists prefer a clear contract.
However, Trimble said "no" rather than "never." Although there was much disappointment and Seamus Mallon poignantly resigned as Deputy First Minister, much of the media was understanding. If he had succumbed, Trimble's party would not have been so understanding and the process could have been lost its key Unionist partner.
The key images of that moment were the 15 minutes the Unionist executive took to reject the deal and empty Unionist benches in the Assembly.
Poor images certainly, but imagine if that meeting had lasted longer. Trimble's anti-agreement unionists would have been able to coalesce and define the party's position. If they had attended the Assembly, farce could have turned to tragedy as they united with Ian Paisley's DUP and sustained an acrimonious debate on expelling Sinn Féin.
Instead, Trimble deftly defined the moment and signalled that the deal then offered was not enough to change his party's manifesto commitment to prior decommissioning. Trimble now has the political authority to decide if and when this can be done.
Prior decommissioning has been superseded by "jumping together" - a complex configuration of actions, within set time limits, that deliver a broadly simultaneous start to decommissioning and the executive.
As the process was parked for the summer, politicians tried to place the blame on their opponents and thereby settle their own political constituencies. The most discreditable message was Sinn Féin accusing the Unionists of not wanting Catholics in government: discrimination not decommissioning was the real issue as Adams cynically revived the "nationalist nightmare" of Catholics being second class citizens as when Stormont was described as a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.
Trimble himself says that Northern Ireland was a "cold house" for Catholics in that period. Trimble may have come from a hardline past, albeit one that favoured power-sharing in 1974, is said to have overcome his own prejudices, consults Catholics in formulating policy and is clearly serious about equality. The Unionists, however, should find ways of demonstrating this commitment to a new society and Trimble's stated goal of a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people.
Trimble could kickstart the process of breaking the anachronistic link between the Orange Order and the Unionist Party which was part of his platform when he won the unionist leadership in 1996. A declaration of intent to do this by, say, May 2000 would be highly symbolic.
Then there is the highly divisive issue of reforming the RUC. The timing of the release of Chris Patten's report may coincide with George Mitchell's review of the peace process in early September.
Yet there are few issues, least of all the arcane details of power-sharing vetoes, which have such a visceral impact. Even controversies over the border don't compare to the heat that could be generated by debate on RUC reform.
Trimble must seek to generate some light on RUC reform. He could argue that whilst the RUC has transformed itself considerably during the Troubles, it still does not command the cross-community confidence that a policing service needs. He could endorse measures to make the RUC more attractive to nationalist recruitment and co-operation whilst insisting that the RUC's capacity to deal with serious crime and any recurring terrorism cannot be sacrificed. Trimble and other democrats could also focus on measures to prevent gangsterism and intimidation becoming entrenched in the North.
With any luck, Northern Ireland could soon start a unique experiment in building a civil society. Part of the province's problem, notwithstanding the gargantuan efforts of recent years, is that policy-makers usually ignore the place, then struggle to catch up when crisis strikes.
If a power-sharing executive is established in the Autumn, there will be an understandable urge to put an apparently successful peace process to one side and move on. This would be a big mistake. Devolution would only constitute the beginning of the end of the deep-seated Troubles. Opinion formers should continue to keep their eye on the ball.
Gary Kent is the Westminster Correspondent of the Belfast-based
Fortnight magazine. This article appears in the current edition of
the left-wing weekly published in London.