Mr Trimble Fights Back
Another inconclusive round in the battle for mainstream Unionism was played out at the Ulster Unionist Party's annual conference at the weekend with Mr David Trimble's calibrated response to his internal critics about the policy direction of the party and the future of the Belfast Agreement. He did all in his power to salvage the agreement to which his leadership is wedded. But he went further than expected in setting out tactical positions on decommissioning and the North/South Ministerial Council in an apparent bid to rebuild consensus within the party.
The substance of Mr Trimble's speech to the 500 delegates in the Waterfront Hall on Saturday underlined one thing very clearly: the perceived gravity of the threat to his leadership at the next Ulster Unionist Council meeting in the coming weeks. This was, undoubtedly, the reason why Mr Trimble was seen to be taking defensive actions against his detractors in the party. The mood was fluid.
At one level, Mr Trimble advanced the staunchest defence of the considerable gains for Unionists from the Belfast Agreement since it was ratified over two years ago. He wondered aloud whether some in his party were so blinkered that they had forgotten what direct rule was like - the Anglo-Irish Agreement, cross-border bodies with no unionist input. Unionism was sidelined, he said, virtually ignored. With unionism on the inside now, he claimed they had forced republicanism to face up to the reality of Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom. "The man who tried to destroy partition (Martin McGuinness) is helping to administer Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, on behalf of Her Majesty and on the basis of British law. That is the real seismic shift!"
At another level, however, Mr Trimble issued his own threat to the two governments about the survival of the agreement. In an apparent change of policy, he suggested that unionists should perhaps adopt "a tactical approach" at this stage. Though he was not impressed by self-serving calls to rush out of the Assembly, he nonetheless warned that working pro-actively in the North/South Council could be "more problematic now". He then went further than his deputy leader, Mr John Taylor, in cautioning that "three months is too long" to give republicans to prove their good faith on weapons.
Mr Trimble brought a dose of reality to the conference when, considering the pros and cons of the agreement from the perspective of his community, he concluded that "there is no unionist Utopia out there. Politics is a rough business with limited choices".
The demands from the UUP conference for a dilution of the Patten Report on the reform of the RUC and further progress on decommissioning will be analysed by the two governments when the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, holds an important meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr Blair, in London tomorrow. The pace of developments within Mr Trimble's party in the wake of the defeat in the South Antrim by-election would suggest that it will be confronted with the unpalatable question in the near future: is the survival of the Belfast Agreement more important than the fate of one of its main signatories? Mr Trimble should be addressing this question to the civic unionist community at this time. The answer to be given may determine the political future for the people on this island, North and South.