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Newsmaker: Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble

March 15, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS: For five years, David Trimble has served as leader of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist Party. It’s the strongest of the Protestant parties that want continued ties to Great Britain. Trimble, a longtime law professor and member of the British parliament, was long regarded as a Unionist hard- liner. But two years ago he was cast as a key figure in the accord aimed at bringing peace between Protestants and Catholics after three decades of strife and violence. At the heart of the so-called Good Friday Accords was an agreement for the majority Protestants and minority Catholics to share power in a new assembly that would govern Northern Ireland. Even as many Unionists accused him of a sellout, Trimble urged the public to support the accords.

DAVID TRIMBLE: I believe the people of Northern Ireland will make their choice, take this opportunity, and leave behind those still mired in violence and hate.

SPENCER MICHELS: Trimble’s gamble paid off. In a referendum, 71 percent of Northern Ireland’s residents, including 55 percent of the Protestants, voted “yes” on the accords.

PEOPLE CHEERING: Hip, hip, hooray!

SPENCER MICHELS: As the new assembly convened, Trimble was elected first minister, or leader, with a Catholic as his number two. As the result of his efforts, Trimble was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1998, along with Catholic leader John Hume. But the prize didn’t end the problems. From the beginning, Trimble insisted that the Irish Republican Army, which wants unification with the mostly Catholic South, would have to start handing over its weapons to an independent disarmament commission. Only then would members of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, be allowed to take part in the new assembly. Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders responded that the Good Friday Accords did not call for an early disarmament deadline, and that Sinn Fein could not force the IRA to hand over its weapons. It took nearly a year and the second intervention of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to come up with a formula to allow the Northern Ireland assembly to start functioning. But the disarmament issue has never been resolved. Last month, Britain’s secretary for Northern Ireland resumed direct rule over the province.

MARGARET WARNER: David Trimble and other Irish and British leaders involved in the Northern Ireland process are gathering in Washington this week for meetings with President Clinton, timed to coincide with Friday’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Mr. Trimble joins us now.

Welcome, Mr. Trimble.

DAVID TRIMBLE, Ulster Unionist Party: Hello.

MARGARET WARNER: Just a few weeks ago, Northern Ireland was enjoying self-rule, you were the first minister of this new government, the cease-fire was holding– why jeopardize all of that over this issue of disarmament?

DAVID TRIMBLE: It’s a very important issue because what lies at this, in this issue, is the question of whether we’re going to have a future decided by entirely peaceful and democratic means, or whether in the future we’re going to be held to ransom by private armies. That’s the real issue that’s at stake here. There are a number of private armies, of which the Irish Republican Army is the largest.

MARGARET WARNER: And there are Protestant ones as well?

DAVID TRIMBLE: There are indeed, that is true. The agreement, the whole essence of the agreement was that we were giving people who had been involved in terrorism the opportunity to leave that behind and to come into the political process. But they were only given a chance to leave it behind. Nobody intended that they should bring their private armies into the political process and there have them available as a resource to threaten or indeed to resort to violence. So the whole essence of the agreement was one of leaving terrorism behind permanently, renouncing the use of force, and coming into the process. Now unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Now, during… up until last November, up until the end of the year, we’d been talking about could we get the paramilitaries to start to disarm, or to take some other effective measure before the administration was formed, or at the same time as the administration was formed. Many people were saying it was a chicken and egg problem. Well, we decided to put it to the test, and we decided we’d go ahead first and form the administration in the expectation that Irish Republicans would reciprocate, but they didn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Why was it important to have them reciprocate not only so quickly, but by a deadline set essentially by the Unionists?

DAVID TRIMBLE: No, no, that’s not the case. We didn’t set any deadline. It certainly was the case that in our situation that there was only a limited period of time that we could have sustained the administration without a reciprocation from them. But what was understood was that General Deshasten, who heads the independent international commission of decommissioning, that he would make a report in January. And that January target came not from me, but from the understandings arrived in the parties.

MARGARET WARNER: But what I’m driving at is the British say they had no choice but to suspend the government, because you threatened to withdraw, to resign altogether and totally blow it up, if something didn’t happen by that date. So that’s what I’m really driving at– why not just let confidence building continue? Why not let…

DAVID TRIMBLE: Well, we’ve had opportunities. Actually, I was following the advice that President Clinton himself gave — which he said, why not go ahead, set it up, and if it doesn’t work, you can walk away from it. Now, I didn’t want to walk away from it, and that’s why I think it was better that the government suspended the administration rather than have it collapse, because that was the alternative. If it hadn’t been suspended then, it would have collapsed. And it shouldn’t have been in that situation. And that situation wouldn’t have happened, but for the failure of Irish Republicans to respond to the initiatives that we’ve taken, the risks that we’ve taken. And we eventually saw the report that everybody knew that Deshasten was going to make in January, we discovered that Republicans up to the 31st of January had done nothing at all.

MARGARET WARNER: Now how do you read Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein, and the IRA? You’ve negotiated with him a lot now. Do you think he’s serious about disarming?

DAVID TRIMBLE: Well, I’d prefer not to make judgments about individuals. I mean, it could be said, some of my people think that he was just stringing us along. Other people think that he’s genuinely tried to bring it about and failed. And I say to them, it doesn’t really matter which – I mean, whether they were being insincere or whether they tried and failed, it’s produced the same situation. The organization, the Irish Republican movement, has not, in fact, delivered what we expected, what is part and parcel of the agreement. It’s part and parcel, they haven’t done that. Now I’ve been very disappointed in the approach that they’ve taken since February. At one point a few weeks ago, Adams was talking about consolidating his position in electoral terms and coming back to this in 12 and 18 months time. And the last day or two, he’s talked in terms that the 22 May date, which is in the agreement, 22 May, 2000, as the date as which the process should be completed– not started, completed– that that doesn’t exist anymore. It looks to me as though, whether for tactical or other reasons, that they’re trying to walk away from the process. I don’t think that’s good. I think they have to, the Republican movement have to come back to the table and engage seriously with us.

MARGARET WARNER: There is one analysis– and as you say, everyone has a different view as to motives– but that in a way, you and Gerry Adams are in similar positions in one respect: That you both actually would like to make a deal, you did make a deal, but you both are being pressed by hard line elements in your respective groups; and that in a way, you’re kind of boxed in by them, and that you risk losing your leadership positions if you were to defy them or try to lead them farther and faster than they want to go.

DAVID TRIMBLE: Well, I took mine on. There are… you’re quite right to say, there are people within Unionism who are not prepared, who are reluctant to do this. I took them on, I took them on when we made the agreement, and we managed to carry a majority of Unionists supporting it. A very narrow majority, as your introduction says– 55-44, within my own party, I took them on. And when we came to decide whether or not to form the administration in advance of decommissioning, I got a vote that wasn’t as good as I would have liked. It was 58 percent, 42 against. Now, the difficulties I have confronted and dealt with within Unionism, you can see it’s there, it’s in the open. With regard to the Republican movement, we hear stories to this effect, but nobody knows, because we’re dealing with a conspiratorial organization, and that is the problem. We’re not yet dealing with a normal, democratic political party, and I wish we were, but we’re not at the moment.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, now, what will it take for you to fell from the IRA, from Sinn Fein, to feel that you can go back to your members and say, “okay, let’s give this another shot?”

DAVID TRIMBLE: Well, when I went to my members in November, and I said to them that I believed this was the best way to achieve what we all wanted, and we went ahead, trusting that the Republican movement would reciprocate, and they didn’t. So if I’m going to go back to members and say, “let’s have another go,” then the obvious question that I’m going to get, is, well, when we tried last time it didn’t work, why do you think it’s going to work this time? Now, I can’t answer that question at the moment. I’m prepared to try again. But in order to be able to try again, I need to be able to tell people that there’s good reason for believing that this time it’s going to work.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, as you know, the Irish prime minister’s trying to float an idea that would get away from the disarmament issue and try some other tradeoff: More British troops would leave Northern Ireland; in return, the IRA would state publicly that war is no longer an option. Without getting into the details of all of that, is that the kind of thing that the Unionists could accept as enough basis to go back into this government?

DAVID TRIMBLE: Isn’t it a great shame that nigh five years after, six years actually, nearly six years after the first cease-fire, we still have not heard from the paramilitaries a clear, unequivocal statement that they do not intend to use violence in the future? That actually…

MARGARET WARNER: So that would be a big deal to get that?

DAVID TRIMBLE: Well, I’m just saying isn’t it a shame that nearly six years after the cease-fires, they haven’t been able to bring themselves to say that they have no intention of resorting to violence in the future. That shows you the extent of our problem. And that shows you how far the Irish Republicans have failed to build confidence in their intentions. And if they had started a few years ago to use the language that you mention, I doubt if our problems would be the way that they are now. Yes, the things you say would be useful, but I can’t negotiate unilaterally. And I can’t go into say this is thing to do, that’s the thing to do. I’ve got a goal, which is simply to get the agreement working, to bring about that situation we all want to see of a society that’s operating on normal democratic principles, where’s there’s no more private armies, no more terrorism. How do we approach that? Well, we’ll look at various ways, but the important thing is, is it going to work, or are they just stringing us along?

MARGARET WARNER: Gerry Adams, when he left Dublin today, said to reporters, he said, “there’s very little likelihood of any breakthrough in Washington,” meaning in the meetings with President Clinton this Friday. Do you share that pessimism?

DAVID TRIMBLE: No, I don’t. I remember last March 17, when we were here, it was up until then, Mr. Adams was saying that there would be no decommissioning. And then after speaking to President Clinton last March, Mr. Adams talked about jumping together, that he and I would jump together, solve the issue of devolution and decommissioning simultaneously. Well, unfortunately, I jumped alone, he didn’t follow me on that. But I mention that just simply to say that my impression was after discussions with the President last March, Mr. Adams started to take the issue seriously. I would like to think that we can make progress this week. And I’m sure the President would like to do that, too.

MARGARET WARNER: You did take a lot of risks to get the process this far. Was it worth it?

DAVID TRIMBLE: The goal is worth it. The goal is worth taking risks. And I know that most people in their hearts, even the 42 percent of my party that voted against me last November, I know most of them want to achieve the same goal, it’s just they’re skeptical as to whether other people are going to do what is necessary. But I know that most of them want to do the same result, that’s why I think it’s worth the effort.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, David Trimble, thanks so much for being with us.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll have an interview with the prime minister of Ireland, Bertie Ahearn, on Friday. Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, has declined our interview request.