Trimble should take role in the crisis over marches

 

WHAT is David Trimble going to do about Drumcree this year? Will he be back, as he hinted last July, to ensure the Orange marchers get to parade down the Garvaghy Road?

Even before this week's scenes of violent confrontation between the RUC and loyalists on the Lower Ormeau Road, the question was being, asked by members of his own party.

It is now clear that if the badly battered peace process is to have any chance of survival, a way must be found for dealing with the perils of the marching season. The threat the present situation presents can only benefit those who want to see a return to violence, or argue that such a step is inevitable. It enables republican activists to argue, with increasingly credibility, that there can be no question of the IRA decommissioning any of its weapons while nationalist communities living in vulnerable areas are under threat.

Already in republican strongholds the memory of Bombay Street, where Catholics were burned out of their homes in 1969, is evoked and the pledge is made that this will never happen again.

On the loyalist side, the situation is just as fragile. David Ervine has warned that the kind of violence which occurred in the Lower Ormeau Road could provide the "final nail" in the coffin of the peace process. It is terrifyingly easy to see how this might happen; a young rioter shot dead by a plastic bullet could be enough to drive the loyalist paramilitaries past the point of no return.

What can be done to draw both communities back from the brink? Ronnie Flanagan, the RUC Deputy Chief Constable, has suggested an independent body be set up to advise on the most difficult marches. Very understandably, he believes this is not a problem the RUC should be left to deal with alone.

So far, Northern Ireland's politicians have shown no desire to accept the poisoned chalice the Deputy Chief Constable wants them to share. But if respect for the rule of law and support for the police mean anything, this is surely an appeal which all politicians particularly those unionists who have links with the Orange Order - must take seriously.

Since David Trimble was elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party last September his record has been - to put it mildly - erratic. At times, he has seemed to offer a more generous and inclusive vision of the Union, something his own community needs if it is move towards a political accommodation with the nationalist minority. At others he has appeared petulant, narrowly tribal and apparently determined to give offence. The most recent example was the speech in which he appeared to suggest that the Taoiseach was less than wholly committed to peace.

There are those who believe that this is due to a streak of Jekyll and Hyde in Mr Trimble's character. Even among his own supporters, who admire his intellectual and political abilities, there are many who say: "You never know what David is going to say or do". But, as always with politicians, there is usually a perfectly rational, self serving reason for what David says or does. The intemperate speech attacking the Taoiseach, for example, came soon after the trip which he and his closest colleagues made to Dublin for a working dinner with Mr Bruton and other Ministers. The visit caused muttering in some unionist circles, and Mr Trimble's speech was almost certainly designed to prove that he had not been taken in by Republican blarney.

DAVID Trimble was elected as leader of his party because the grassroots, particularly in rural areas, trusted him as a true blue loyal defender of the unionist cause. His performance at Drumcree last July was important in consolidating that support and he is understandably reluctant to risk alienating it. Added to that the unionists, like every other political party in the North, are now in election mode - a position which will make it even more difficult for Mr Trimble to moderate his tone on contentious issues.

This makes it even more important that he should move, and move fast, to respond to the Deputy Chief Constable's appeal. I agree with a lot of what Vincent Browne wrote in this spaced yesterday - that it is wrong and dangerous to dismiss the Orange marches as aggressive displays of tribal bigotry. The vast majority pass without incident. They are extremely important to many northern Protestants as an assertion of cherished ideals, and of an identity which they feel to be under threat from militant republicanism. In an ideal situation, they would be occasions for colourful summer celebration. But in the real world some of these marches are so dangerous that they threaten to plunge Northern Ireland back into the tragedy of the past 25 years. Compromises have to be worked out to try to ensure this does not happen.

In this context it is worth recalling, very briefly, what happened at Drumcree last July. Police, community leaders, skilled mediators worked, with great patience until they arrived at a decent compromise, which allowed face to be saved on all sides. Eight hundred Orangemen marched down Garvaghy Road, but in silence without their bands. The agreement was seen as a victory for common sense and peace. It was David Trimble, along with Ian Paisley, who insisted on snatching a tribal victory from the solution by declaring: "There was no compromise. We have come down our traditional route with our flags flying."

That was then; this is now. Mr Trimble is leader of a political party which represents the majority of the unionist community: most of these people bitterly resent the TV images which have represented them across the world as "Orange bigots". They know very well how large a part these have played over the years in losing them sympathy in Britain and further afield.

EARLY in his career as unionist leader, Mr Trimble recognised - with considerable political courage - that the party would have to break its links with the Orange Order if it were ever to have any credibility beyond a narrow sectarian base. At last year's annual conference he endorsed the decision to end the formal connection between the Ulster Unionist Party and the Orange Order.

In the same speech he spoke of the challenge facing the party to put across the message "that the Union is better for all the people of Northern Ireland, better for them socially, better for them economically, better as a place which can accommodate diverse identities."

Realistically, it is probably hoping for too much to expect David Trimble to take a lead in helping to resolve the problems of the marching season. But he has been offered an extraordinary opportunity this week in the Deputy Chief Constable's appeal for an independent body to advise on difficult routes. If he were to announce his support for the idea, he would not only help to ease fear and tension in the province after the events of last weekend, he might even begin to put some flesh on his fine words about the Union.