NEW REPUBLIC ?
Fortnight June 2000
Tony Blair must feel like a frustrated football managing director. His board's goal, since the autumn of 1972, is tantalisingly close to being achieved. But no matter how often the star player, Trimble, takes the ball around his opponents the rest of the team simply cannot bring themselves to poke the leather into the onion bag. They will convert the expertly delivered cross only when they are assured that the defeated captain, goalkeeper and their supporters will cheer the goal as well. Managing director Blair will still respect his star signing but he may well feel he wants to drop the team.
The decision by the IRA to allow outside agencies to monitor its arms dumps prompted the comment from Niall O'Dowd that David Trimble could legitimately have proclaimed victory. Some would read this as Sinn Fein's proxy way of confirming to unionism what Martin McGuinness allegedly said to Sean Duignan in the mid-1990s 'we know the guns are banjaxed'.
But for many in Unionism everything must be spelt out in bold capital letters and underlined with an indelible marker. This would be possible if it were not for the fact that the authors of the republican script have another audience - the republican base. And the messages to it are always written in invisible ink.
There is some debate over whether the republican leadership has in fact crossed the Rubicon on the question of arms. Danny Morrison, for instance would not share the view of Niall O'Dowd that Trimble could claim victory. But if decommissioning is about disarming IRA weaponry as distinct from disarming the IRA then the crossing has been made. In any event, what David McKittrick has called the sanctum sanctorum has been violated. The republican leadership never, of course, cross the Rubicon at its mouth. All such ventures are made downstream, in the summer season and at the narrowest point. Because the grassroots do not feel the water gushing over their feet it is always possible to tell them that no such crossing has in fact been made.
But when it is possible to secure 96% support at a Sinn Fein ard fheis for the Good Friday Agreement - a partitionist arrangement which Martin Ferris recently said 'is not a republican document' and which Peter Mandleson has described as 'the end settlement' - then it is not all that difficult to see how the impossible within republicanism can be achieved. Could the leadership of unionism have won 96% support for a British declaration of intent to withdraw and for a Dublin declaration of intent to annex the North?
Unionism is inherently suspicious. It recalls Martin McGuinness once proclaim that the cease-fire would hold in all circumstances only to find it as dead as the two newsagent victims the Canary Wharf bomb left in its wake. Privately even those unionists most opposed to Sinn Fein in government admit the 'seismic' nature of the IRA statement. So seismic in fact that they conclude it must be a con. How, they feel, can a movement that seems to move as fast as a stopped watch suddenly rock around the clock?
The republican leadership needs Trimble to survive. He provides the figleaf of forward momentum so necessary for present republican strategy to continue. All the criticisms directed at Trimble from republicans are merely irrigating the republican base's sense of being involved in a continuing resistance struggle. It is all too facile to accept Mitchel Mclaughlin's comment that republicans would deal with any unionist leader that may come along - but would any deal with them? With 43 per cent opposition expressed against the present incumbent as a result of the Martin Smyth challenge the republican leadership could allow for no further slippage in his position it were to avoid internal questioning of its own. It moved to shore him up - and moved decisively. The achievement has been Unionism's. Will it really snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by demanding that the Sinn Fein leadership sing God Save The Queen only then to complain that they did so out of tune?
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