Straight-talking Trimble strengthens the Yes camp

 

There has been much talk in recent weeks about who can save David Trimble - the British and Irish governments, Gerry Adams or Seamus Mallon? On Saturday at the annual Ulster Unionist Party conference Mr Trimble impressed by proving he was prepared to try to save himself.

Whether he can do so is down to the UUP's ruling 860-member Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) to decide when it meets yet again in less than four weeks.

Essentially, what Mr Trimble and his senior allies were attempting to do on Saturday was to get the council members to think straight and also to put it up to nationalists that he was central to the Belfast Agreement but could not secure it by himself.

By "thinking straight" Mr Trimble meant the UUC had to understand there was no alternative to the agreement, other than marginalisation and even greater distress for unionism, and for Northern society generally.

On Saturday Mr Trimble tried to dictate the battle conditions so that when he confronts Jeffrey Donaldson at the UUC meeting towards the end of this month or in early November he will have the sun at his back.

Whatever strategy the IRA adopts on arms and Sinn Fein and the SDLP on policing may be influenced by the fact that on Saturday Mr Trimble did what they have criticised him for not doing in the past: he gave a fighting speech in defence of his leadership and of the agreement.

"It is time to tell it like it is, the good and the bad," was how the UUP leader opened his keynote address to the 500 delegates in the charged atmosphere of the Waterfront Hall, Belfast.

The voltage level had been even higher during the political debate that preceded his speech. Ken Maginnis, doing his Brian Lenihan barnstorming act, tore into the "antis". Look how the annual death toll had plummeted because of the peace process. Did No unionists "need people to die" to justify their position?

This prompted howls of outrage from the floor, but afterwards Mr Maginnis was unrepentant. His job was to rattle the No camp. People needed to face up to the truth of a likely escalation in violence if anti-agreement unionists had their way. It was part of the "thinking straight" tactic.

Mr Trimble was heckled early in his speech. And then - and this was the interesting part - there was a gradual mood swing. His address was strong on content but, perhaps more tellingly, it was the passionate manner of his delivery that swung more and more of the crowd behind him.

He had a predictable lash at Patten and at the policing stance of the nationalist parties and the Catholic Church. Without setting impossible conditions he warned that the UUP might semi-detach itself from the North-South bodies and the IRA must "prove their good faith on weapons" in less than three months.

To use the buzz phrase of the moment there was an element of "creative ambiguity" because good faith could mean another arms inspection or something more substantial on arms.

Withdrawal from the Executive was an option, but he was careful here, too. He spoke of a "considered and calibrated approach" but stood by the agreement for all its faults.

The emphasis was on the need for clear thinking: "If we simply go fishing for votes in a small pond already dominated by the DUP we might as well go home now . . . Will we sleep any sounder in our beds if we are seen to ditch this agreement? Will there be decommissioning? No. Will the union be guaranteed? No."

He told delegates the choice was simple: "On the one hand we can draw nationalism and republicanism into a consensus. On the other, we can be governed by London with Dublin interference, deprived of a voice, deprived of a vote, deprived of a veto. You didn't elect me to take you down that path. And I won't go down that path."

He argued that unionism now had greater control of its future even though nationalism itself was stronger. He said that during the failed Sunningdale executive in 1974 when the nationalist vote was in the "low 20s" Articles 2 and 3 were on the statute books and there was a Council of Ireland unaccountable to unionism.

Now when the nationalist vote was over 40 per cent the territorial claim was removed and the North-South bodies were answerable to the Assembly.

Implicit was acceptance that the nationalist vote was strong, and growing, and wasn't going away, you know.

The deeper Mr Trimble went into his speech the more the crowd warmed to him. The most electric part of his delivery was when he rounded on his internal foes: "Stop undermining the party. Stop undermining the leadership of the party. Stop undermining democratic decisions made by your party. Stop running to the media and badmouthing your Assembly team".

It was interesting and novel, too, that outside the debating chamber Yes unionists acknowledged the difficulties but argued with their opponents that the anti-agreement alternative was a stronger role for Dublin, an isolated and further divided unionism and nationalism, and Sinn Fein in particular on the up.

Also discernible was a more powerful sense that pro-agreement unionists actually believe they have a case.

About two-thirds of the crowd gave Mr Trimble a standing ovation. Mr Donaldson remained in his seat, unimpressed. If Mr Trimble could replicate the applause in the form of the vote at the council his future would be assured, but it should be a closer-run contest.

However, he has bought time for himself. One of the No unionists on Saturday was adamant he must be ousted as leader but nonetheless conceded: "Trimble has guts, I have to say that for him".

Where the Yes camp failed on Saturday was to draw out Mr Donaldson into formally challenging Mr Trimble for the leadership. But Mr Donaldson is still playing the stronger "no guns, no government" policy card, even though most people know it's all about Trimble versus Donaldson.

Saturday was a day for Mr Trimble and the Yes unionists. The No wing is not too discouraged. It doesn't want to peak too early. It made some mischief on Saturday, but the big players remained mute on the big issue. Mr Donaldson and William Ross and Martin Smyth didn't even speak during the main debate.

The No unionists remain confident that the majority of the larger council is now anti-Trimble and anti-agreement. That's as maybe. At least in Mr Trimble's favour he spelt out clearly to No unionists and to nationalists what he believes is at stake and what the alternatives are if he and the agreement fold. He set people thinking straight.