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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 17:16 GMT
David Trimble
David Trimble
There was the rare spectacle of politicians across Northern Ireland clamouring not to have more elections.

The ones last week have left Ian Paisley as the leader of the largest party, and therefore entitled to become First Minister. But that would involve him sharing power with Sinn Fein, which he finds as congenial right now as an invitation to spend the night in a Celtic fans drinking den.

Hence the floating of the idea that the British government might ask the people of Northern Ireland to think again.

The election results were a huge blow to the Ulster Unionist Leader, David Trimble, whose unstinting attempts to keep the Belfast Agreement on track have been rejected by the Unionist electorate.

Jeremy Paxman spoke to David Trimble and asked him first what had gone wrong.

DAVID TRIMBLE MLA:
(Leader Ulster Unionist Party)

We maintained our vote, but the Democratic Unionist Party significantly increased it's, on the nationalist side, not unexpectedly, Sinn Fein completely eclipsed the SDLP. The latter had been pre-figured in the 2001 election, but our result had not. I think part of the problem lies in the uncertainty about the future, the Assembly is still suspended, disillusionment and disappointment because of the failure to fully implement the agreement, and there I think republicans have to take a special share of the blame.

PAXMAN:
Isn't the lesson also that you should have stood up to Sinn Fein a lot earlier?

TRIMBLE:
We have been standing up to Sinn Fein since the 1998 election. Indeed I remember we forced suspension in January 2000, over their failure to decommission, and again we blew the whistle in October over their failure.

PAXMAN:
You went back in and we still have no idea how many weapons the IRA has decommissioned and how many it still has?

TRIMBLE:
I agree with you, it would have been better if we could have solved everything at one go. We did what we could as we went along and unfortunately it was an uphill struggle, forcing republicans even to do the little they did. I'm not surprised that a lot of people got weary of it and began to wonder whether we were going to succeed. You have to bear in mind also the fact that because the Assembly is in suspense, that deprived us of a lot of potential good news stories, that is part of the reason why people stayed at home.

PAXMAN:
Are you prepared to accept that because your own party was itself divided, people were less inclined to vote for you?

TRIMBLE:
We have had that problem. The problem certainly doesn't seem to be getting any better. It is the case that the divisions are used by people as another excuse for not coming out. Although, mind you, it has to be said, most people are pretty clear about the position of particular candidates and when you look closely at our results you can see that reflected.

PAXMAN:
There comes a point as a leader at which you must say, "Up with this, I will not put?"

TRIMBLE:
It's very easy to say that, but then you've got to consider what the consequences are. The one thing, Jeremy, I'm not thinking of going is to say I have had enough and I'm off. I'm not going to do that.

PAXMAN:
You're not going to resign; do you think that Jeffrey Donaldson should go into another party somewhere?

TRIMBLE:
I think Jeffrey needs to do some serious thinking about what he intends to do. I would much prefer to see him loyally support the party of which he is a member of.

PAXMAN:
Well, he's not doing that!

TRIMBLE:
Well, I have just said what I would like to see him do.

PAXMAN:
Well you can carry on hoping but there does come a point surely where you have to say, "Look old chap, it's time you went off and ploughed your own furrow?"

TRIMBLE:
Bear in mind one thing, of I could - we go back to 1998, when we had the first Assembly. We came in there with I think about seven or eight people in the Assembly party who could be described as deeply sceptical, in the event we only lost two. There is something to be said for letting people come into contact with reality, gauging with reality situation and working it through. That is probably better, in the long run, than taking precipitated action.

PAXMAN:
Why can you be so sure that you won't resign, when you have led a party which was once the dominant, the overwhelming, the juggernaut force in Northern Irish politics, and taken it to a position where it is no longer even the majority unionist party?

TRIMBLE:
The Democratic Unionist Party has beaten us before in elections, they did so in Jim Molyneux's time in 1979 and 1981, we recovered from that then and we're going to recover from it today also.

PAXMAN:
Under your leadership?

TRIMBLE:
I intend to beż I very much hope it will happen on my watch. In fact, I hope it will happen very soon indeed.

PAXMAN:
Do you think that Ian Paisley is fit to be First Minister?

TRIMBLE:
I don't think there's the slightest chance of Ian being First Minister; I don't think he wants to be.

PAXMAN:
That wasn't my question, is he fit to be First Minister?

TRIMBLE:
I'm deliberately not answering that question. I'm saying I don't think he wants to be, I think Ian's desire has always to be in opposition. Mind you he has always wanted to beat us too. But then that presents him with a problem, that if he beats or gets ahead of us, which he has done at the moment, then what does he do, he can't remain in perpetual opposition, while being the largest party? That is a rather difficult thing to do, and I don't think he'll be able to sustain it very much longer.

PAXMAN:
Do you think there is a case for somehow re-running these elections?

TRIMBLE:
I don't think there is any stomach for that. Much and all as we do enjoy electioneering, one doesn't actually welcome the prospect of doing it to too short interval between one and another, that is not our preference in this situation. Mind you, having said that, I'm not sure how we get out of the present deadlock, because that seems to be where we're headed.

PAXMAN:
How could you get out of the deadlock without another set of elections?

TRIMBLE:
You never know, it could be that the DUP really do mean to produce some ideas and some solutions, it could be that they are going to engage with reality, but then doing that would mean essentially adopting the policies that we have followed - a commentator looking at the last half-a-dozen years might say, "Well, the DUP are edging in that direction." They have changed their position from five years or so. But if one is waiting for them to catch up completely with us I fear we may have to wait quite some time.

PAXMAN:
You do seem remarkably insouciant for a man who is staring at absolute deadlock.

TRIMBLE:
We have had lots of problems here. I have been here before, many times, I have been involved in politics in Northern Ireland for about 29 years. No, it's 30 actually now I think about it. I have seen lots of deadlock in that problem; I have seen lots of difficulties in that problem in that time. I know there's no point getting overemotional about these matters. It is a matter of dealing with what you have, working your way through as best you can. At the moment we do have a problem if the DUP maintain this attitude of not bothering to negotiate and not bothering to produce any ideas, while claiming negotiation is its policy.

PAXMAN:
David Trimble, thank you very much.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



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