Trimble moves in at Jersey to get Blair's attention

 

Further strains on the peace process and on David Trimble's Ulster Unionist leadership were evident at the British-Irish Council summit, writes Gerry Moriarty, Northern Editor from Jersey

Only one other serving British prime minister has set foot on Jersey, and that was Lord Rosebery more than 100 years ago. So it was with great enthusiasm and pride that local politicians welcomed Tony Blair as well as Bertie Ahern and a long list of senior government figures from Britain and Ireland, Guernsey and the Isle of Man to their island yesterday for the British-Irish Council summit.

They were miffed however that David Trimble rather spoiled the party. While everyone else was six miles away at the summit, Mr Trimble metaphorically gate-crashed a meeting between the Taoiseach and Mr Blair at Jersey airport to engage in, as they say, frank one- to-one discussions with the prime minister.

The theme of the summit was the knowledge economy but with Mr Trimble button-holing Mr Blair at the airport, after the prime minister's tete- a-tete with Mr Ahern, the theme for the press quickly switched to the latest potential crisis facing the political process, and in particular the Ulster Unionist leader.

Over in Jersey, reporters got the whiff of a plot being hatched in Belfast against Mr Trimble. There was a motion from Jeffrey Donaldson for today's meeting of the 110-member Ulster Unionist executive proposing that UUP ministers withdraw from the Northern Executive if Mr Blair failed to take action against Sinn Féin, we were told. Yet another leadership heave by other means, we wondered.

Had they been aware of the context, the Jersey hosts of the British-Irish Council might have been more understanding of why Mr Trimble muscled in on the Ahern-Blair bilateral. Before their encounter, Mr Trimble warned that there could be "catastrophic" consequences for the process (and by implication for his UUP leadership) if Mr Blair did not put the squeeze on republicans.

Certainly, Colombia, Castlereagh, and east Belfast - irrespective of whether it is republicans or loyalists who are chiefly responsible for stoking the sectarian furnace - are playing very badly with the unionist constituency. It blames republicans for all these ills.

That set the tone for the two straight-talking bilaterals at Jersey airport between Mr Blair and Mr Ahern and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, and the Northern Secretary, Dr John Reid. The British and Irish heavyweights fought from green and orange corners, Blair-Reid generally taking Trimble's side, Ahern-Cowen effectively querying how 3,000 nationalists in Short Strand surrounded by 60,000 people could be responsible for all the trouble.

They were careful in their press conference but some of the tensions slipped through. Mr Ahern expressed sympathy for the Short Strand nationalists and implied that the Police Service of Northern Ireland was not doing enough on the ground to act against the rioters.

Mr Blair said he understood the anxieties of the unionist community. He indicated that instead of IRA decommissioning the focus would shift to another loaded d-word, IRA disbandment.

"That peace process represents for certain parties a transition from violence to democracy. That transition has to be completed. There is not a half way house for democracy," said Mr Blair.

While Dublin would dearly love to see the IRA fading into the mists of history, it is also conscious that probably the surest way of it never happening is by issuing ultimatums for disbandment.

The Sinn Féin education minister, Mr Martin McGuinness, who was also in Jersey, rejected any blame apportionment to the IRA. The reason for the current mess was because of a failure of unionist leadership, he said. No help for Mr Trimble there. So, plenty of recrimination out there, but not too many proposals on how the threatening crisis can be avoided.

Yesterday's no-first strike pledge from the Loyalist Commission - which includes among it members the UDA and UVF - represented some progress, although nationalists such as SDLP leader Mark Durkan was conscious that similar promises in the past proved worthless. Mr McGuinness was also receptive, saying he would meet the commission if that could help ease tensions.

Both governments, irrespective of their differences, are mindful that this is a tricky time for the political process and for Mr Trimble, and that opponents in his party will exploit any opportunity to undermine him, as they will likely do today at the party's executive.

A senior British source encapsulated it well: "Look, we accept that the IRA are serious about their ceasefire and the peace process but, because of Castlereagh and Colombia and Short Strand and other issues, unionists don't accept that they are serious. All we are asking is that they do something to convince unionists they are serious."