Dublin’s Border stance could provoke loyalist paramilitaries, Trimble warns
Ulster unionist says any transfer of sovereignty would be ‘extremely dangerous’
Former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has warned that the Government in Dublin risks provoking loyalist paramilitaries with its stance on the Border after Brexit. File photograph: Eric Luke.
The Government’s stance on the post-Brexit Border in Dublin risks provoking loyalist paramilitaries, former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has said.
Lord Trimble, who played a critical role in creating the Belfast Agreement, said any special deal to keep the region within the European Union would destroy a key tenet of the agreement that there would be no constitutional change without majority consent in Northern Ireland.
“What is happening now is that people are talking up the issue of Brexit and the Border for the benefit of a different agenda from the agreement,” he said.
“The one thing that would provoke loyalist paramilitaries is the present Irish Government saying silly things about the Border and the constitutional issue. If it looks as though the constitutional arrangements of the agreement, based on the principle of consent, are going to be superseded by so-called ‘special EU status’ then that is going to weaken the union and undermine the very agreement that Dublin says it wants to uphold.”
Lord Trimble was the Ulster Unionist leader at the time of the Belfast agreement negotiations and his backing for the deal was crucial to its success. He was later awarded the Nobel prize for his efforts to secure peace in the region and was awarded a life peerage in 2006.
However, the former Northern first minister said he believed loyalist paramilitaries could re-activate if the principle of consent enshrined in the agreement was put in danger by any post-Brexit deal demanded by Dublin and nationalist parties.
“I believe that some senior Irish government officials go around Brussels talking about the ‘Hong Kong model’ - the one country, two systems idea,” he said.
“That is a precedent they talk about where sovereignty has been transferred from Britain to China. Anything that looks remotely like this or is building on that foundation would be extremely dangerous. Although I think that under this Conservative government I cannot see that prevailing.”
Lord Trimble also claimed another threat to the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was the Democratic Unionists alienating pro-union Catholics and the “moderate middle classes” in general over issues like the party’s opposition to gay marriage equality.
He said they made a mistake by asking for £1billion as the price for keeping the Conservatives in power.
“When the DUP asked for that money it was always going to infuriate Scotland, Wales, many of the English regions. That is how you lose friends in Britain as well as the votes especially of the moderate middle classes in Northern Ireland.”
Lord Trimble was equally downbeat about the possibility of a Jeremy Corbyn government, which he thinks might agree to Northern Ireland being given special status inside the EU after Brexit, which in turn would de-couple the region from the UK.
“His right-hand man [John McDonnell] who in government might get a rush of blood to the head and go to his old mates like Gerry Adams and give him what they want. If he and Corbyn were the two leading figures in a Labour government and created ‘special status’ after Brexit that would be very dangerous.”
‘No real regrets’
While having “no real regrets” in signing the agreement even after it split his party, Lord Trimble said he wished he had kept closer to Tony Blair when he was prime minister. By the time he lost his Upper Bann parliamentary seat in the 2005 general election, Mr Blair’s government was already pursuing a strategy of “wooing the extremes”, according to Lord Trimble, by seeking support for a second agreement, between Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Lord Trimble said Mr Blair’s letter of assurance over IRA disarmament that he gave his negotiating team less than 24 hours before Good Friday 1998 was “absolutely critical and vital” in securing UUP support for the agreement.
Under the rules of the talks, the agreement would not have come into existence unless it acquired the backing of both major unionist and nationalist parties around the negotiating table.
One of Lord Trimble’s most vocal internal critics in the UUP after he backed the Belfast agreement was Arlene Foster, the current leader of the DUP. While he said he sympathises with the problems Ms Foster has to deal with in the absence of a powersharing government, Lord Trimble laughed and added: “Do you know that in all the times when I was UUP leader and she used to be in the party before defecting to the DUP, Arlene never spoke to me once.
“Other internal critics like Jeffrey Donaldson (once an Ulster Unionist himself, now the DUP MP for Lagan Valley) always went out of their way to speak to me even when the UUP was a divided house over the agreement. Jeffrey was always civil with me despite our differences but I cannot recall one occasion where Arlene said anything to me at all.”
A spokesman for Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney rejected Mr Trimble’s criticism, saying that the Government has always accepted the “democratic decision” of the Brexit referendum and that Northern Ireland would be leaving the EU alongside the rest of the UK.
“However, we are fighting for the hard-won peace on the island of Ireland and, to that end, the EU27 reached agreement with the British government last December guaranteeing avoidance of a hard border and maintaining full alignment North-South in the absence of a deal,” the spokesman said.
He added that the Government’s goal now was that the negotiations between the EU and the UK would lead to a close future relationship with the UK that would make that “backstop” guarantee unnecessary. – Guardian