The decision by the Ulster Unionist Council, the ruling body of the Ulster Unionist Party (U.U.P.), Northern Ireland's largest unionist party, to endorse Senator George Mitchell's formula for the immediate establishment of a power-sharing executive is a major triumph for David Trimble's leadership. The vote to seat Sinn Fein in the region's new devolved administration in advance of any decommissioning by its paramilitary wing, the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.), effectively ends an 18-month stalemate in the Irish peace process and unlocks the potential of last year's historic Good Friday agreement.
That agreement involved the removal of the Republic of Ireland's territorial claim over the North and the end of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement--both deeply resented by the unionist majority--in return for an inclusive executive, and meaningful North-South bodies to oversee practical cooperation between the two parts of the island.
Both Trimble and the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams initially approached negotiations from entrenched and opposed positions. Yet behind Trimble's steely exterior and apparent intransigence there lurked a refreshing political pragmatism conspicuously lacking in his unionist rivals. Adams, for his part, was seeking a means of ending the Provos' "long war" and transforming Sinn Fein into a major political force, North and South. The republican support base had become war-weary and increasingly prepared to accept an interim solution as a step on the road to a united Ireland. Sinn Fein strategists were aware that demographic shifts favored the nationalist population in Northern Ireland.
During the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday agreement, the U.U.P. refused to speak directly to their "republican enemies," though John Hume, as leader of the largest nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (S.D.L.P.), resisted pressure to reach a "centrist" deal which would exclude Sinn Fein. The upshot was a package which involved "political pain" for both communities. Under the agreement, paramilitary decommissioning was to be completed by May 2000, though it was not made a precondition of devolution. For the republican movement, the acceptance of seats in a "partitionist" Assembly signaled a seismic shift in historical attitudes since the division of Ireland in 1921. For Trimble, the agreement delivered "accountable democracy" and ensured that constitutional change could only occur on the basis of consent.
Despite large majorities for the agreement in referendums in both parts of Ireland in May 1998, Trimble managed to secure only a slight majority over his Democratic Unionist (D.U.P.) opponents in the subsequent Assembly elections. This left the Ulster Unionist leader with little room to maneuver and forced him, as Northern Ireland's First Minister, to insist on "no guns, no government." The D word--decommissioning--effectively stymied successive efforts by the two governments to break the logjam until the Mitchell deal two weeks ago. The U.S. chairman's formula, together with the consummate presentational skills of the new Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, finally succeeded in finding an honorable way out of the devolution-decommissioning morass.
The recent "confidence-building statements" from Sinn Fein and the I.R.A. signal a new acceptance of the requirement to disarm, reflecting the new mood in republican areas. Moreover, Trimble's upbeat defense of his policy change this week suggests that he has received private assurances from republicans that decommissioning will follow the I.R.A.'s appointment of a representative on the De Chastelain Independent International Commission on Decommissioning in January.
If all goes according to plan, Northern Ireland will have a new partnership administration in place within days, with hereditary enemies working side by side. Ironically, the anti-agreement D.U.P. is determined to take its Cabinet seats, suggesting that its members realize their inability to turn back the clock. The new scenario presents challenges and dangers for every party while the prospect of violence from recalcitrant elements remains high. For Trimble--and many unionists--the prospect of peace, inward investment and an end to the young Protestant brain drain to British universities justifies the political risks involved. He knows that if Sinn Fein betrays his trust, it will incur instant pariah status in Dublin, London and Washington and see its hopes of overtaking the S.D.L.P. as the voice of Northern Irish nationalism finally shattered.
After four centuries of turmoil and 3,600 lost lives in the past 30 years of the Troubles, there is now real optimism that the gun may soon finally be removed from Irish politics. And, in David Trimble's words, "the next generation may see the peaceful battle of ideas between the Union and a United Ireland" supplanting bitter discord.
Eamon Phoenix, a political historian and commentator, is senior lecturer at Stranmillis University College, Belfast