Unionists not yet ready to come to Trimble's party

 

Unionists are not into All-Ireland-style victory homecomings. When David Trimble entered Arrivals in Belfast City Airport on Saturday morning he was greeted by his wife Daphne, daughter Sarah, and a scattering of party activists and friends not numbering more than 20.

Northern nationalists readily and un-selfconsciously take delight in John Hume's Nobel Peace Prize because they see it as a tribute both to the SDLP leader and to themselves.

Unionists, though, are much more suspicious. Mr Trimble and others, including Mr Hume, repeatedly made the point that the award was also a recognition of unionist endurance and the role they played in the peace process. But unionists don't yet seem ready to party.

Maybe the point will get through eventually. At least Mr Trimble is blessed with energy to carry him through the difficult days and weeks ahead. After a frenetic 10-day trade mission in the United States with the Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, he wasn't betraying any sign of jet lag.

Just as well, because he was no sooner off the shuttle flight from London than he was whisked into another busy round of press conferences and meetings. There was just time to embrace his wife and daughter, pose for the cameras at the airport, then it was off to Stormont.

One of the first to greet him at the airport was Denis Rogan, chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party. Shouldn't Mr Trimble take a few days rest before preparing for next weekend's party conference, he was asked. No sympathy from Mr Rogan. "David's a big boy, he can take the pressure."

So, next stop Stormont to meet the press, discuss developments with some of the party hierarchy write an article for yesterday's Ob- server, before, finally, some family time in the evening.

Yesterday morning there were broadcast interviews, and today he is meeting the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, to discuss - what else? - decommissioning.

He opened his Observer article by quoting Yeats's line about peace "dropping slow" ("too slowly", said Mr Trimble), and then writing about the need for prior disarmament, before taking a sideswipe at those sceptical, ungenerous fellow unionists.

He lamented those "within unionism who cannot lift their eyes from this month's sectarian dogfight to observe the promising vista unfolding for Northern Ireland as peace and prosperity take hold, and as the taint of political rancour and violence give way to international goodwill".

And he finished with another reference to Ireland's greatest poet: "Unfortunately, American investment and a peace prize will not add up to more than Yeats's nine bean rows on the Isle of Innisfree without a change of outlook on both extremes."

Decommissioning will dominate politics in the period ahead, and the trick for Mr Trimble is to find a way out of the deadlock. Under pressure from the majority of parties, who reject his interpretation of the agreement as stating there must be some disarmament before Sinn Fein can enter an executive, and from those within his own party who would try to oust him as leader should he compromise on the question, Mr Trimble knows he must act wisely to safeguard the agreement.

But whatever he is feeling internally, there was no sign of outward strain at the weekend. He hoped that the award he shared with Mr Hume would encourage republicans to reconsider their position on weapons.

"I hope this award will encourage the republican movement to take the steps that are necessary to give public confidence and assurance that we are going to see the end of the troubles of the last three decades," a pretty chipper Mr Trimble told reporters. He also tried to bring it home that everybody in Northern Ireland, including unionists, could share in the award.

"It shows that the international community recognises that Northern Ireland is coming out of the turmoil that we have had over the last three decades, showing that the international community recognises we are in the process of bringing into existence a new Northern Ireland. For that reason, everybody in Northern Ireland has cause to feel proud today," he said.

"It is an honour, an honour which I am deeply conscious of for myself. But I think the honour really goes to all those in the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP who worked so hard over so many years to produce an agreement and who are now trying to implement it." But mixed with the obvious satisfaction of receiving the prize was a guardedness about the future. At the airport on Saturday Mr Rogan said Mr Trimble was right to be cautious. "We just hope that this didn't come too soon, and that the peace can be delivered," he added.

As Mr Trimble walked from Arrivals into the main foyer of the airport on Saturday, people applauded. "Congratulations, good on you," one elderly man said. It wasn't tumultuous acclaim, but Mr Trimble welcomed it all the same.

"Thank you," he beamed.

One of the women with him in the small reception party turned and, referring to the kind words and the award in general, said: "All this will give him a lift - he needs it."