Irish gifts - sales benefit the Newshound

Wrecking Trimble

(by Ruth Dudley Edwards, Sunday Independent)

'I look to David Trimble to be leaderly about all of these matters,' said Gerry Adams in Washington on Thursday. Well, at least it makes one grateful it's Martin McGuinness rather than him who's Minister for Education.

As far as I can gather, Trimble is to display his leaderliness by telling his party that decommissioning doesn't matter and that unionists should, instead, be concentrating on getting British troops out of Northern Ireland and destroying the effectiveness of the RUC by insisting on the full implementation of the Patten report. Meanwhile, Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Féin party chairman, tells us that Bertie Ahern and Peter Mandelson are being 'deeply unhelpful', because Ahern said decommissioning 'cannot be dodged' and Mandelson was equally unstatesmanlike in saying disarmament was 'absolutely central' to the success of the Good Friday Agreement.

Annoyance with Ahern has further led Adams to say loftily in New York that Sinn Féin would not go into coalition with Fianna Fail because of their misdeamours over the budget. I liked that. When it comes to brass neck, you have to admit the fella's world class.

Optimistic commentators are convinced that all this is a ploy. Adams is engaged in damage limitation. When it becomes clear early in February that though Trimble has leadered away like billyo he will have to resign or be deposed if decommissioning doesn't start, the republican leadership will ride to the rescue and save him and the agreement.

The only problem with this cheery analysis is that there is nothing republicans would like better than to see Trimble destroyed.

In August 1996, the month after Northern Ireland had almost fallen into civil war over Drumcree, Mitchel McLaughlin told me that Trimble was 'finished.' He could hardly keep the grin off his face.

The destruction of Trimble has been a major republican objective because he is intelligent and effective. In 1983 they murdered his close friend, Edgar Graham, because they had been told that he was an outstanding talent who might well become an able leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. By 1995, when Trimble became leader, murdering constitutional politicians was thought to be counterproductive, so in subsequent years they tried to wreck him by creating maximum trouble over Drumcree, through vicious propaganda and by being uncompromising vis-a-vis decommissioning in the hope of driving him out of talks. The game-plan was that when he walked out, unionists would have joint authority imposed on them.

It has been mortifying for them to see Trimble sticking with the talks, successfully risking his career over and over again, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and changing the image of unionism in Britain, Ireland and the US. He hasn't just been clever and brave, he's been lucky. As a unionist said to me this week, 'For five years, I've seen David on the verge of political death so often I now believe he can survive anything.' At which moment he paused and said, 'but he will have no option but to resign if the Provos welsh on decommissioning.'

What Adams and his colleagues want at the moment - apart from the moon - is that once again they bully the British and Irish governments into caving in. 'Gerry can't deliver,' they are to say. 'Now, David, please be leaderly and let the IRA off the hook until May.'

If he agrees his party will be further split and he will be voted out; if he refuses and resigns as First Minister, he will be seen as anti-peace. Either way, Sinn Féin win.

'Ah, no,' say the optimists. 'Sinn Féin know this would have a disastrous effect on their election prospects in the Republic.' Well, would it? They play a long game and up to now their misdeeds have always been forgiven.

Trimble and the agreement can survive this time if, and only if, the British, Irish and US governments show some backbone. But though Mandelson speaks toughly, he is falling over himself to make concessions to republicans. Yet if the governments told Adams that the game was up and that if decommissioning didn't start by February, the plug would be pulled and he would be blamed, he would give in.

Will they? Have they ever?