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Sunday 12 January 2003

Trimble is unionists' only option

If Trimble is ditched, so too are realistic unionist hopes, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards 

IT is six years since Mitchel McLaughlin post the mega Drumcree told me that David Trimble was finished. Then, as now, the republican leadership wanted rid of Trimble. Then, it was because he was clever. Now, it is also because he is the only unionist leader with a reputation outside Northern Ireland except, of course, for the Rev Ian Paisley, who is admired in the American bible belt and seen everywhere else as a raving bigot. 

In 1996, our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was keen that the constitutional people of Ireland do an honourable deal and the fascist savages be converted to the path of righteousness. These days, all has changed utterly. Key DFA people have long ago written off the SDLP as casualties of history and they now seem keen to have the UUP join them. 

I hate to spoil a good party, but it's time for a reality check. The reason for Paisley's popularity is because his clear message appeals to five substantial constituencies among unionists: the bigoted, the mad, the dumb, the frightened and the moral absolutists. If you're a hater of Catholics or just Catholicism, are one gospel short of a testament, don't have a clue what's going on, are convinced the British government is plotting to sell you out or simply think it's wrong to do deals with terrorists, you vote for the Doc. 

The party itself attracts other constituencies, primarily those who think Trimble has been suckered, that the DUP is more ruthless and effective than the UUP, and that intransigence is a good negotiating position. 

Then there is the constituency Peter Robinson and his handful of modernisers want to win: the middle classes (known as the Prod in the garden centre), who want to see a deal delivered that will stabilise Northern Ireland.

So over the last few months, Peter Robinson and his supporters have been sending out seductive messages about sitting down with Sinn Fein in certain circumstances; last week, Assembly member Willie Hay explained, "we need to have a clear message from paramilitaries that their war is over and especially from the republican movement that there is a clear timetable of dismantling the IRA". Paisley's spokesman promptly disowned him. The DUP goes on about the division in the UUP between pro and anti-Agreement factions, but a fissure is growing in their own party and the arithmetic is not in Robinson's favour which is why he backtracks with such regularity. As a recent poll showed, while the majority of the UUP are pro-Agreement, the majority of DUP members are against sharing power with nationalists, let alone with unreformed republicans. Why should the Prod in the garden centre vote for a party dominated by dinosaurs with a wing proposing what is now standard UUP policy? 

Owing to the IRA's treacherous carry-on in Colombia, Castlereagh and Stormont, the UUP will not be sitting down in government with Sinn Fein again without the Willie Hay commitments. The Prod in the garden centre would be well advised to ask him/herself a simple question. Why do republicans want a) an Assembly election in May and b) a DUP victory? They want the political demise of David Trimble and they want it because he is highly regarded in Westminster and the US. Without Trimble, unionists will overnight be wiped off the battlefield abroad for the high moral ground.

The great appeal of the DUP used to be that you knew where you were with the Doc. It may be that the muddled and contradictory messages being sent out now by the DUP will fatally undermine their challenge to the UUP. But if by some outbreak of dementia in the garden centres Peter Robinson (an effective minister in a provincial assembly who has failed to make a mark in the House of Commons) becomes First Minister, unionists won't have a friend in the world. That would not be good news for any of the constitutional people; it would merely fuel the nihilistic rage of loyalist paramilitaries. Is that really what the DFA want?

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards