Trimble and Drumcree: regrets but no apologies

 

WESTMINSTER, Tuesday afternoon, with only Big Ben to disturb the tranquillity of David Trimble's Commons office.

It seems a world away from Portadown - which, inevitably, is where we start.

Given the appalling fallout from Drumcree and the events surrounding it, does Mr Trimble think he owes the Catholic community some form of apology? The Ulster Unionist leader doesn't flinch.

"Not I," comes the reply: "I agree it has been a bad summer ... a bad summer for democratic politics and a good summer for Sinn Fein, because Sinn Fein has been able to manipulate Irish nationalism to act in accordance with its agenda."

Mr Trimble condemns the original decision taken by the RUC, the "pressure" exerted by the Irish Government, and "those members of the RUC who regularly visited the Anglo Irish Secretariat in the run up to the decision".

And where others divined an Orange conspiracy, he detects a Dublin based plot: "I think the strategists of the Department of Foreign Affairs believed, if Orangeism could be faced down during the summer, this would create a situation in which Sinn Fein could be enticed into the talks."

Quoting "a nationalist commentator", Mr Trimble says: "the Catholic middle class settled back in the first 10 days of July to enjoy the spectacle of Orangemen being `taught a lesson'." He believes Irish nationalism was seeking confrontation: "They indeed the Northern Ireland Office to blunder along the line toward it, and that caused the appalling summer we all had. It's not the summer I wanted."

In the same vein, Mr Trimble rejects the idea that Drumcree represented an important loyalist victory. By involving the church leaders, he maintains, he hoped for "an agreement which would resolve the situation not this year but on a more permanent basis.

And yet, right to the end, they declined any form of dialogue with the residents of the Garvaghy Road? Mr Trimble counters there was contact - between himself and a local Jesuit, residents, members of the SDLP and others: "We refused to have dealings with a particular group at the centre of which was a person, put forward as a spokesman, with a record of republican activity...

The group that put that man forward was doing so to prevent any discussion taking place, because they knew they were selecting a person who was unacceptable."

I put it to Mr Trimble that, while he wasn't prepared to talk to Mr McKenna, he was prepared to talk to Mr Billy Wright. But he insists "the two don't weigh in the same balance because you're using the word `talk' quite inappropriately".

Mr Trimble asserts: "I was not involved in any formal talks with Mr Wright, and those who use that term are misrepresenting the situation. My relationship with Mr Wright is not similar to Mr Hume's relationship with Mr Adams.

"We were not engaged in joint political action, we were not engaged in joint action from the point of view of a demonstration, we were not co ordinating activity in any way whatsoever."

The UUP leader repeats that he had contact with Mr Wright because of his influence over a paramilitary element "threatening to carry out actions I would have regarded as potentially disastrous".

Mr Trimble doesn't know to what extent his intervention prevented the realisation of those fears. But he is clear "that, with that element coming on the scene, had I done nothing I would be accused of condoning it ... I had a responsibility to deal with the situation as it developed. It was not a situation of my choosing."

Offering no criticism of that, I noted that neither had Mr John Hume been critical. Of the Hume/Adams dialogue, he says: "I know the defence Mr Hume offers for that, in that he believed his talks with Sinn Fein were going to bring about peace. But that hasn't actually happened.

Mr Hume's attempts to coax and encourage the republican movement into democratic politics have not succeeded. Indeed the judgment would be, rather than democratise Sinn Fein he has republicanised the SDLP and undermined its position."

PRESSED on the point, Mr Trimble rejects any suggested contradiction between his willingness to talk to a man who reportedly wants to end the loyalist ceasefire, and his refusal, over 18 months, to talk to Mr Adams while the IRA ceasefire held.

If no apologies are due the nationalists, I wonder, on reflection, if Mr Trimble might feel he owes his own community an apology. And I explain why. Unionists a year ago were delighted when their newly elected leader was hailed as a moderniser. Now they feared his reputation, and that of unionism, had been badly damaged.

Moreover, some of his colleagues feared Portadown would prove a Pyrrhic victory, that unionism would eventually pay a high price, and that the RUC may improve the biggest casualty.

The important thing to bear in mind, he replies, is that "I don't regard Portadown as a victory." He maintains "the challenge wasn't sought by us" and acknowledges "the outcome of it has certainly not helped".

He sees, too, the damage done to the RUC: "Mind you, we saw that danger beforehand. I do have regrets about what happened. I don't think they call for apologies - from my point of view. I regret the fact that we were unable to persuade the NIO to do the sensible thing before they took what I consider to be the fatal decision - in July...

To many outside observers, of course, the fatal thing is the assertion of a loyalist right to march in areas where they are simply not wanted. It is in response to this that Mr Trimble places Drumcree in its wider political context.

He explains the particular and the general situation. The particular involves the conditions surrounding the 190 year old church service at Drumcree. Yes, the demographics have changed.

And "local Orangemen would say yes, we've recognised that, we used to have six parades and one church service - that was down to one parade and one service this year'." The local Orange view would say, "we have compromised, we have made reasonable offers, we've never had a decent return in response".

He continues: "That's only looking at the particular situation . . . You did not get reactions province wide to the difficulties, say, on the Ormeau Road, Bellahy, wherever."

DRUMCREE, he says, was different: "Because the reaction you saw this year . . . was a reaction, not to the specifics of Portadown, but to a much wider general issue.

People - and this goes back much more to last year - unionists, Orangemen generally, got to the point of saying `We're fed up with the way in which the British government has continually surrendered and retreated to a republican/nationalist offensive'. "They feel that last year, you know, the worm had turned ... that by virtue of what Portadown Orangemen did last year they said `Right, that is a marker, that shows people how fed up we are'.

"And it's against that background that you got the reaction this year. Drumcree has acquired within the unionist community a symbolic significance which is detached from the particular merits or demerits of that situation."

And Drumcree, Mr Trimble confirms, provided something of the context of his election as UUP leader. Asked if the outworking of this mood was reflected in the Ulster Unionist Council's choice of him 12 months ago, Mr Trimble replies: "Yes, there is a parallel."