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26 March 1998 Edition

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The sensible Mr Trimble

As the talks enter the final lap, Brian Campbell wonders who will tell the Unionists to stop saying no

The headline in Monday's Irish Times said it all - and said nothing. It read: ``Trimble declares his party would back `sensible' agreement''.

The headline was over an edited version of David Trimble's speech to the Ulster Unionist Council last Saturday. It was a perfect illustration of the unreal world of Unionist participation in the talks.

In Trimble's own words, `sensible' means: ``We are prepared to agree to a settlement which recognises Northern Ireland's position as part of the United Kingdom, and which puts in place sensible arrangements to enable the whole community in Northern Ireland to be involved in real politics.''

The whole community? Well, not exactly. In coded language Trimble ruled out fairness for Sinn Féin voters: ``An assembly elected by proportional representation, discharging its functions on a proportional basis, will allow participation at all levels from all sections of the community. Parties committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means will have their fair share of the places and proceedings as an entitlement.''

In other words, in Unionist-speak, Sinn Féin voters have no place in Trimble's sensible political society. Three weeks from the proposed end of negotiations, republicans are non-people. Trimble will not speak to Sinn Féin because he does not believe their voters have a right to their politics, let alone a right to equality.

On Tuesday Gerry Adams compared this Unionist attitude to that shown to black people in the Southern states of the USA over thirty years ago: ``David Trimble has that kind of mentality in thinking that those who vote for our party can be excluded and made to sit at the back of the bus.''

Three weeks from the proposed end of negotiations the Unionist leadership is still turning its face away from real change. What they are proposing is an Assembly with limited powers but with a firm Unionist majority having a veto over all decisions; limited cross-border bodies subject to the Unionist veto in the Assembly; and a ``Council of the Isles'' under whose `umbrella' the cross-border bodies would operate. They want no prisoner releases or changes to the RUC and they deny that nationalists suffer from structural inequality in the Six Counties. This is the `sensible' agreement envisaged by David Trimble.

But of course negotiations are about change and Trimble is fighting a desperate rearguard action to ensure that change is minimal and meaningless. To that end he signalled that his main tactic is to split nationalism. It harks back to the long drawn-out attempt to destroy Hume-Adams by the Unionists and the last Conservative government which contributed to the breakdown of the peace process during the IRA cessation of 1994. Now Trimble is having one last push at the tired old tactic.

In his speech last Saturday, he appealed to the SDLP: ``The real question commentators should be asking now is whether the SDLP will have the courage to move forward with us and condemn the extremists to the dustbin of history... To get agreement we will need the SDLP to meaningfully engage with us. I say to them, the days of relying on the Irish government to do your negotiating are over.''

What should be foremost in Trimble's mind is that all previous attempts to forge a Unionist/SDLP solution have failed miserably. The long years of trying to base a settlement on exclusion and marginalisation are history. It was only when Gerry Adams and John Hume launched the Irish peace process on the basis of inclusiveness that a real chance for agreement became possible.

And now, when inclusiveness and full engagement are most needed, Unionists are still wedded to the old agenda.

The reality that is making Trimble nervous is that there is a growing realisation that deep-seated change is coming. Take the changes necessary in the area of policing. A 94% Protestant force, with a track record of sectarianism so bad that its own internal reports (as revealed last week) show widespread sectarian abuse against even its own Catholic members, cannot hope to escape the sweeping changes. And yet the Unionists want it to remain intact.

Or take fair employment. Catholic males are twice as likely to be unemployed as their Protestant counterparts and that has been the case - or worse - for generations. And yet the Unionists argue against tackling this equality in a meaningful way.

Or all-Ireland bodies. Even the most pro-British member of the SDLP will argue for them to have executive powers. Nationalists simply won't settle for anything less. Nor will they even begin to contemplate a Unionist-dominated Assembly which would have Trimble as its `prime minister'. Not a chance. And yet Trimble is trying to make an alliance with the SDLP on these issues.

It is the unreal world of Unionist politics. They cannot see that the world is moving on.

So what are the chances of Unionists coming to terms with change in these next few weeks? Little chance if the irresistible force of change is not applied to the immovable object of Unionism. And the only direction from which that force can be applied is the two governments. It is up to them to move the process towards a new future. ``The only way to get the Unionists to engage is to make clear to them that change is coming anyway,'' Gerry Adams said on Tuesday. ``The governments need to be coming into the talks with a very clear agreed position about the institutions they want to see''.

Would it be too much to expect that this British government could learn from their predecessor's handling of the peace talks at Lancaster House in London in 1979 which led to the end of white rule in what was then Rhodesia? As the talks entered their final phase, the white minority leader, Ian Smith, realised that the British government was opting for black rule. Looking back, it was an historically inevitable shift. But Smith didn't see it that way.

``You bastards, you're selling us out,'' he is reported to have shouted at British Foreign Minister, Lord Carrington. And Carrington is said to have replied, ``You have been saying `no' for thirty years. The time for saying no has gone''.

Now, that was sensible.

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