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Trimble’s stunt stokes division

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Issue 1756

Unionists are obstacle to peace

Trimble’s stunt stokes division

ULSTER Unionist leader David Trimble resigned as Northern Ireland first minister on Sunday, raising the spectre of deep crisis. It is a crisis that the majority of Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland do not want.

It is not a product of “tribalism”. It is the result of hardline Unionists and Loyalists throwing up one obstacle after another to a just and lasting peace. Far from facing them down, Trimble has conceded to them. What the Unionist hardliners want is not a peace agreement but an abject surrender by the Provisional IRA.

That demand is tantamount to insisting on a return to the conditions that plunged Northern Ireland into three decades of armed conflict. The peace process came about because the British government realised that it could not defeat the IRA militarily. Systematic discrimination and repression against Catholics ensured the provisionals had support in the Catholic working class ghettos. The peace process was a set of negotiations to end a war. But over the last three years Unionist leaders have demanded that the IRA surrenders its weapons as if a war were still taking place.

It does not matter to them that the weapons have not been used. They ignore the fact that international mediators monitor those guns constantly.

The idea that unused guns are the obstacle to peace is laughable, particularly when even if guns were handed over, new ones could be bought swiftly if war returned. The demand for “decommissioning” is about humiliating Republicans. That is why there is nothing like as much pressure put on the various Loyalist paramilitary groups to disarm, even though they have been shooting innocent people and one another. And there is no talk from the Unionists, or their sympathisers in the British government, of total disarmament in Northern Ireland, which would include the police and would mean removing the army.

Unionists and the British government would not even implement the full report of former Tory chairman Chris Patten into reform of the RUC police force. Instead Loyalist and Unionist groups are trying to stoke sectarian tension. That is the purpose of the Orange Order march planned for Drumcree this Sunday. It is a display of anti-Catholic bigotry designed to intimidate Catholics into accepting their status as second class citizens.

The peace process itself institutionalises such sectarian division. It encourages people to identify themselves along the sectarian lines the state has fostered for many decades. And it ensures that the minority of hardline Unionists can frustrate people’s desires for lasting peace.

The overwhelming majority of Catholics want peace. So do most Protestants. But because both the Nationalist and Unionist sides in the Northern Ireland Assembly have to agree to any policy, there is scope for Unionist hardliners to exercise a veto. The extreme Unionists in Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) took an extra two seats at the general election. It benefited from frustration with Trimble, but even it had to moderate its anti-agreement message. The hardliners now hope to gain from stoking sectarian division. That lies behind the recent attacks on Catholic people by Loyalist thugs in north Belfast. Northern Ireland is still the poorest region of the UK. That creates space for sectarian politicians to argue for the limited resources available to go to “their community” rather than the other.

The British government could easily call Trimble’s bluff and shatter the hardline Unionists whose tune he is dancing to. Blair and his Northern Ireland minister John Reid could say they are standing with the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Instead John Reid is championing the Unionists’ hypocritical demands over decommissioning.

He is treating Sinn Fein, which got more votes than the Nationalist SDLP at the general election, with contempt. It is that policy rather than Protestant support for sectarianism that is breathing life into the Orange bigots who care nothing about working people, Catholic or Protestant.

Sectarian career

TRIMBLE IS presented as a peacemaker. In the late 1990s he came to represent that wing of the Unionist establishment that realised it would have to allow Catholics some role in a state established as “a Protestant state for a Protestant people”. Trimble’s previous career has been based on defending that sectarian “Protestant ascendancy”.

  • Trimble entered politics at the age of 29 in the violent anti-Catholic Vanguard Unionist organisation.
  • He opposed the Sunningdale agreement, which in 1974 gave a limited role for Catholics in a Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland government.
  • He was one of the organisers of the violent Loyalist campaign that succeeded in bringing down the Sunningdale agreement. A little later he put his name to a collection of anti-Catholic songs.
  • He joined the Ulster Unionist Party in 1978 and kept a low profile for 12 years.
  • He returned to prominence in 1990 when he joined with Unionist bigot Ian Paisley in heckling Charlie Haughey, Southern Irish prime minister, during an official visit.
  • He became MP for Upper Bann and opposed talks not only with Sinn Fein but even with the Southern Irish government.
  • He marched arm in arm with Ian Paisley on the anti-Catholic Orange Order march in Drumcree in 1995, and was elected as the hardline candidate for leader of the Ulster Unionist Party that year.
  • He has gone out of his way to accommodate even more extreme elements among the Unionists, even though they represent a small minority. That has encouraged them to demand more.

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