Is Trimble `bile' the disguise for change in tack?


THE tone of the Sinn Fein ardfheis over the weekend was conciliatory, if naively so. The tone of David Trimble's speech Saturday to the Annual General Meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council was as conciliatory as that of any unionist leader, bar Ian Paisley, in the past 20 years.

It was the tone of contempt that was the most shocking aspect of the Trimble speech. For instance, the paragraph directed at Mr John Major "If you seriously want peace, and Mr Bruton seems a wee bit uncertain, then you have a fairly simple way of encouraging him to your way of thinking. End the common travel area. Control the land and sea frontier. Once the Dublin government realises that it can no longer export bombs along with its social problems to England, it will become as helpful as a Tory backbencher in search of a knighthood."

There is the suggestion that Mr Major may not seriously want peace (otherwise why the "if") and the suggestion that Mr Bruton is uncertain about wanting peace. The ending of the common travel area is not a simple way of achieving anything and may be illegal under European law.

Certainly, controlling the land and sea frontier is not simple, as the security forces on both sides of the Irish Border have appreciated over the last quarter of a century (although David Trimble is not the only one to have overlooked this at a time when the Dublin authorities are talking of "sealing" the Border to prevent the importation of cattle from the North).

But it is the phrase "once the Dublin government realises it can no longer export bombs... to England" that is the most offensive because of the suggestion that the Government is actively involved in the bombing of English cities.

Of course, Mr Trimble does not believe this but, no doubt, the phrase seemed clever to him and likely to convey the intended offence. The addition of Dublin's "social problems" was designed to add a further sting, as was the analogy with the Tory backbencher in search of a knighthood.

Mr Bruton's characterisation of this as "bile" seems inadequate.

But there was more, much more.

The speech opened with the declaration The Canary Wharf bomb clearly and conclusively proves that there is no prospect of the republican movement becoming committed to exclusively peaceful means.

Certainly that bomb shows that the republican movement is not now committed to exclusively peaceful means. But that it shows "clearly and conclusively" that there is "no prospect" of this is simply nonsense.

It might interest Mr Trimble to observe that while he was speaking in the Europa Hotel in Belfast on Saturday morning, almost at the same time, Mr Mitchel McLaughlin, chairman of Sinn Fein, was speaking in the Ambassador in Dublin. He said "Sinn Fein reiterates at this ardfheis our commitment to a democratic resolution and to pursue exclusively peaceful methods to resolve the divisions amongst the people of Ireland.

Similar sentiments were uttered during the weekend by Mr Gerry Adams, Mr Pat Doherty and Mr Martin McGuinness.

NOW this assertion by Mr McLaughlin and the other Sinn Fein leaders does not prove "clearly and conclusively" the opposite to what Mr Trimble was saying.

One might also observe that the language of bombs is far more persuasive of the intention of republicans than the rhetoric at an ardfheis. But what one can deduce from what Mr McLaughlin and the others said is that the certitude with which Mr Trimble spoke is unsustainable.

This is not a mere debating point for it goes to the heart of alternative strategies for consideration.

One such strategy is to seek to have the cease fire restored, then engage in inclusive all party talks in the hope that out of such talks could come a settlement that would be acceptable to the broad mass of the people of Northern Ireland, including republicans, and which would end forever the possibility of violence in pursuit of political ends.

The other strategy is to attempt to defeat the IRA militarily and conclusively, thereby making the creation of an acceptable consensus in Northern Ireland easier as the republican dimension would not have to be catered for.

It may be that the objective of the military defeat of the IRA will become unavoidable through, for instance, the rejection by republicans of a settlement agreed by all the other parties and the two governments and the resort by republicans to violence in an attempt to overthrow such a settlement. Even then the cost of the military option, almost certainly involving internment, would been enormous in terms of the alienation of a large section of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland and in parts of the rest of the country. But that alternative may become unavoidable.

But we are nowhere near that and, indeed, there now seems to be the prospect of reaching an overall settlement which would be acceptable to all, including republicans, or at least a settlement that republicans could live with or agree to try to change only through peaceful and democratic means. After all, Sinn Fein and the IRA have agreed with the Hume/Adams formulation that any settlement would have to secure "the agreement and allegiance of all sections of the Irish people".

It may be that the Sinn Fein strategy of what it calls the "peace process" is merely a ruse designed to buy political support and breathing space for a full resumption of the IRA campaign. No more than Mr Trimble, I have no certitude about this but I have a strong belief that this is not so. To opt for the military strategy (i.e. the defeat of the IRA) in circumstances where there is a possibility, however vague (and I, for one, do not think it is vague), of the "peace strategy" working would not just be a mistake, it would be calamitous.

Of course, for the peace strategy to work, agreement would have to be secured to the kind of institutional recognition, envisaged in the Framework Document for the nationalist identity in the absence of other plausible alternatives to addressing this dimension. In that speech in the Europa last Saturday, David Trimble ruled out such a possibility absolutely.

There was one possibly hopeful element in the speech it appears to be a fudge on the decommissioning issue. Up to now, or at least over the last few months, Mr Trimble's position seemed to be that Sinn Fein would have to agree that decommissioning would start at the outset of the talks and continue during the course of the talks. On Saturday, he stressed the necessity for commitment merely to the proposals in the Mitchell Commission report on decommissioning he avoided the pretence that Article 35 of that report required "parallel decommissioning" (it merely suggests that the parties "consider" this idea).

It could be that the bile and offensiveness of the rest of the speech was to disguise this change of tack. If so, perhaps the offence can be forgiven.