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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 May, 2005, 17:27 GMT 18:27 UK
Trimble pays the price of democracy

Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

David Trimble
David Trimble often appeared an embattled figure

In many ways David Trimble was a rather old-fashioned politician, ill-suited to the demands of 21st century democracy which tends to reward glib charm and a capacity for the mechanical repetition of soundbites.

So it seemed somehow appropriate that in standing down from the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party he was responding to one of the oldest rules of democracy: a leader who presides over a crushing, historic defeat simply has to fall on his sword.

And there is no doubt the defeat he suffered at the hands of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists (DUP) last week was both crushing and historic.

The Ulster Unionists were the party of government in Northern Ireland for 50 years from the foundation of the state, and it is not so long since they had ten seats at Westminster to the DUP's two.

Key figure

The DUP were simply seen as a party of protest - a political platform from which its veteran leader Ian Paisley roared his anti-establishment views.

And yet polling day in Northern Ireland has shown that it is the DUP, with its deep hostility towards the whole idea of sharing power with Sinn Fein which has captured the mood of the unionist - which is to say Protestant - voters in the province.

It now has nine Westminster seats. The Ulster Unionists have only one.

The basic underlying cause is that the republican movement have not behaved properly over the years
David Trimble

So Mr Trimble had to go - and one of the key figures in the Northern Ireland peace process is quitting the political stage and being forced to read and listen to news coverage which essentially amounts to a series of political obituaries delivered while he is still very much alive.

They will probably be generally positive.

True, at a personal level, he can seem awkward to the point of brusqueness and in news conferences was occasionally brusque to the point of irascibility - but in the seven years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement he has proceeded from a deep conviction about what was right for Northern Ireland.

That led him into years of exasperating multi-party negotiations in which he attempted to hammer out a deal with republicans which would make it politically possible for his Ulster Unionists to share power with Sinn Fein.

That meant trying to persuade republican leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to offer enough concessions on IRA disarmament to convince him, and the Protestant electorate of Northern Ireland, that the time was right for power-sharing.

Embattled figure

Hardliners in his own party pulled him one way, arguing that the republican movement was not offering enough, and probably was not sincere anyway.

An anti-agreement faction within Ulster Unionism repeatedly called meetings of its ruling council in a series of attempts to unseat him.

He always emerged triumphant, but every bruising session undermined his authority a little further.

The British government - desperate for a deal - pushed him in the other direction, urging him to accept the IRA's offers in an attempt to re-establish the institutions of devolved government.

No wonder Mr Trimble so often seemed an embattled figure... and yet to those of us who have followed him in recent years one of his personal trademarks was the perverse manner in which moments of deep crisis in Northern Ireland's never-ending political negotiating process sometimes seemed to inspire him to a kind of jaunty calm.

His efforts won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the gratitude of governments in London, Dublin and Washington and yet history will probably remember him as a politician whose personal readiness to do a deal was greater than that of the voters on whose support he depended.

If that happens, it will be something of an injustice.

True, Mr Trimble is merely paying the price that democracy extracts from politicians who fall out of step with their voters.

But, in the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, history should also record that Mr Trimble's negotiating partners both in government and in the republican movement didn't do much to help him at critical moments.

He goes believing that he is leaving Northern Ireland a better place than he found it and even at a moment when talks are stalled and power-sharing seems a remote prospect, it seems to me that is a belief to which he is entitled.




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