THE BRIDGE TRIMBLE WON'T CROSS
Parliamentary Brief December 1995
On Wednesday the 8th of November over 1,500 Republicans assembled at the Ulster Hall to listen to Martin McGuinness tell them that 'this building, just like our City Hall,is our Ulster Hall also'. If one were to attach any significance to the theories of Antonio Gramsci, then the inference to be drawn is that Sinn Fein have seized yet another crucial vantage point in the war of position. As An Phoblacht/Republican News reported 'few would have dreamed that they would ever have attended a Sinn Fein rally in what was for so long regarded as the tabernacle of Unionism'. Symbolism in the North of Ireland counts for a lot. And the notion that nationalists can have the same unfettered access as unionists to the centres of powerful political imagery is a loss of galling proportion to the latter. Supremacism minus the ability to lord it over their opponents is a questionable concept indeed.
Recently, the same Ulster Hall was the venue of another important event in the North of Ireland's political calendar. On that occasion it was the leadership contest for the Ulster Unionist Party. The successful candidate was David Trimble. Since then many have written about the change of style and whatever else that Trimble would bring to unionism and politics in general. The same amount of coverage has not been devoted to what republicans think of his election. At one level there is the nationalist 'common sense' position, expressed in a conversation between two drinkers in a Belfast bar. One proclaiming surprise that Trimble had won the leadership position, said 'but he has only been a MP for five years'. To which his partner replied 'aye, but he has been an orange bigot for fifty'.
True or not, the effect of perception is very important in politics and as one nationalist in West Belfast put it to me in casual conversation, it is impossible to visualize Trimble outside of him hand in hand with Ian Paisley performing a 'kick the pope' dance at Drumcree.
At a more 'philosophical' level, there is little sign of any significant difference. If any republican felt that the election was going to produce in an intellectual sense the first post-veto unionist leader, they were soon to be hauled back to terra firma. Although Gerry Adams wished Trimble well in his new role, there is little doubt that republicans viewed with disappointment his election. The republican columnist, Hilda MacThomas, writing the week before the leadership contest, awarded a single 'brownie point' to only one of the five challengers - John Taylor. One suspects that Taylor may have been the person most suited to republican machinations at this particular juncture. While regarding him as virulently right wing they had convinced themselves that if scratched deep enough he was a hard nosed political pragmatist, with whom they could do business and, perhaps more importantly, who was prepared to do business with them.
For Republicans Taylor may just have been willing to fudge enough of the issues to allow them to clutch at strawmen and argue that some 'transitional' deal had been struck. This is not a likely prospect with Trimble, who is more concerned with triumphalism than fudge even if for the sake of peace. The spirit of Drumcree captured in his comment 'we never compromised and we will be back', or words to that effect.
There is little evidence that would lead us to conclude that Republicans feel they can make serious overtures to Trimble for talks. MacThomas's article in An Phoblacht/Republican News immediately after Trimble won the leadership contest complained that his victory shocked many nationalists. She approvingly cited the journalist David McKittrick who said of the victor 'twenty five years in politics have left no real indication that he has a vision beyond unionism and orangeism'. Republicans, therefore, have taken to ridiculing him for his rather inept performance in the United States, implying in An Phoblacht/Republican News that he had mastered the art of losing friends and alienating people.
But the act of ridiculing itself only, if unconsciously, reflects despair at the essential unbridgability of the two mutually exclusive perspectives. And this despite republicanism having arguably shed itself of its core tenets. This adds up to yet another gooey element in the peace process that has made it the political quagmire which it has so patently become. More and more one is tempted to agree with Paul Rose that the problem is that there is no solution. But he did say that in 1968!
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