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4 September 2003 Edition

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Keeping the sharks circling

BY LAURA FRIEL

The British government's obsession with saving David Trimble by continually conceding to an anti-Agreement agenda encourages rather than undermines the oppositional lobby within the Ulster Unionist Party. Its a reality that even the SDLP recognises. As Mark Durkan recently put it, the British Prime Minister's 'save Dave' strategy has only the effect of "keeping the sharks circling".

The experience of northern nationalists in their engagement with unionism at local council level suggests that unionist rejectionism can be, calmly and consistently, faced down. But as it stands, the British Prime Minister's preoccupation with supporting unionism rather delivering the Good Friday Agreement continues to distort the political process.

Next Saturday, David Trimble is set to face yet another meeting of his partyís ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council. This latest challenge to Trimble's authority has been called to contest disciplinary action against the three UUP MPs currently refusing to recognise the party's Westminster whip.

Keen to strengthen Trimble's hand in the forthcoming showdown, the British government is currently attempting to address unionist complaints against the proposed International Monitoring Body. Sinn Féin, which has vigorously opposed the imposition of the IMB, has pointed out the proposal is outside the Good Friday Agreement.

The IMB was introduced as a sop to unionists' determination to establish a mechanism through which they hope to disenfranchise the Sinn Féin electorate. If unionists were to succeed, the exclusion of the largest nationalist party in the North from the political process would ensure the recreation of an artificial unionist majority. This dream of a return to the old Stormont regime, rather than power sharing and equality and democracy, still lies at the heart of the unionist vision.

But of course to concede ground to insatiable unionism is only to encourage greater demands. And almost on cue, Jeffrey Donaldson has demanded that even the semblance of a nationalist input into the IMB be removed. Faced again with Trimble and Donaldson's 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' routine, the British government is set to concede.

The unionist objection to the proposal that one of four IMB commissioners is to be appointed by the Dublin government has been met with reassurances. It has been understood that where there is specifically a strand one issue, the Irish commissioner would not have an input and 'sensitivity' would be shown.

In other words, during any future bid designed by unionists to exclude nationalists from the Assembly, the Dublin government has already agreed to neutralise what little input Irish nationalists had been allocated in the first place.

It's the kind of 'sensitivity' the beleaguered northern nationalist community has cause to resent. In the interests of anti-Agreement unionism, the erosion of the even the modicum of influence pro-Agreement nationalist Ireland could expect to exert within the IMB has been tossed aside.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair's determination to throw yet another lifeline to David Trimble on the eve of another leadership challenge within the UUP has been a slap in the face for the tacit acceptance of the imposition of the IMB by the SDLP.

Prior to last year's suspension of the institutions, the SDLP leadership was put under enormous pressure by the British government to support the exclusion of Sinn Féin. Fearing the party's electoral meltdown if the SDLP were seen to collude in the disenfranchisement of the majority of the nationalist electorate, Durkan declined.

In his 'fork in the road' speechí Tony Blair noted his irritation with the SDLP's refusal to play the unionist ball and warned that in the future "nationalists"í (as opposed to republicans and code for the SDLP) would be required to "act if violence returns".

The imposition of the IMB offered the SDLP an escape clause. If the IMB's 'legitimacy' could be established within a significant proportion of northern nationalists, the SDLP hoped to avoid being seen to be doing the British Prime Minister's bidding in any future crisis manufactured by anti-Agreement unionism.

The SDLP have now described themselves as having 'serious difficulty' with the IMB. In sharp contrast to Blair's eagerness to meet the UUP agenda, the SDLP feel that they have been ignored. "We offered the government and the parties a much more sensible solution-based way of overseeing the implementation," said Durkan.

"Unfortunately. the governments came up with a much more scrambled proposal and now we have a serious difficulty," said the SDLP leader.

Tony Blair's preoccupation with saving David Trimble and his willingness to concede to unionist demands has again left the SDLP exposed. And after the feeding frenzy, as the SDLP leader has acknowledged, all the British Prime Minister has succeeded in doing is keeping the anti-Agreement sharks circling.


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