David Trimble leads

 

If the major players in the Northern Ireland process felt last week that they were travelling to Washington to no apparent or hopeful purpose, Mr David Trimble may have proven them wrong. They return to their desks this morning from the St Patrick's Day celebrations at the White House with a potentially significant initiative from the First Minister of the suspended executive. Not for the first time, Mr Trimble has seized the initiative and taken the high ground in the decommissioning/devolution debate.

The unionist leader told a Washington press conference that he was prepared to become involved in a "fresh sequence" which "probably will not involve arms up front". Over the weekend his party spokesman on security, Mr Ken Maginnis, came out in support of his leader. The Taoiseach reacted swiftly, welcoming Mr Trimble's statement and calling for the republican movement to respond to it. Almost simultaneously, there were predictable cries of outrage from the dissidents within his own party, notably Mr Jeffrey Donaldson. Democratic Unionist, Mr Peter Robinson, called for Mr Trimble to be "roasted" on his return. Republicans appear to regard it as a clever ploy, a spin. They probably have to take that stance, Mr Trimble having shown this further willingness to advance where they have not.

In something of an understatement, Mr Trimble added that in order to become involved in a new sequence he would have to persuade his own party to back it. Many observers would say it is unlikely that he can do so and it is certain that it cannot be done easily. At the end of this week, he faces into the annual general meeting of his party's council against a background of hardening positions, demands for new preconditions before the executive is reinstated and a potential challenge to his leadership. A proposal to re-enter government with Sinn Fein without arms "up front" must be likely to drive some of the waverers who supported Mr Trimble at earlier, crucial meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council into the arms of his enemies.

It remains to be seen what precisely Mr Trimble will propose. He will be under intense pressure to make his intentions clear in detail at the meeting on Saturday. A split in the party cannot be ruled out. It is possible that Mr Trimble may have decided to risk all, with the realisation that such a split, in reality, exists within the ranks which he supposedly leads. Were it to be formalised, he might be better off taking a stance which would be widely applauded as generous, brave and imaginative. Winston Churchill once said that if faced with the alternative of the scaffold or charging 1,000 bayonets, he would charge the bayonets. Mr Trimble may take a similar view.

The possibility of a break in the logjam has been presented. It has come not a day too soon. Dissident republicans are planning and endeavouring to execute a new campaign of violence. Loyalist paramilitaries are reported to be restless. Punishment beatings by the IRA have begun again. Perhaps most ominously of all, moderate voices have begun to fall silent and the language in use by all sides has taken an edge of bitterness and anger. Repeatedly, in the course of this process, David Trimble has shown himself to be capable of flexibility and courage. It is important that others respond in similar coin - and quickly.