- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2000

It has been more than a month since Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble spoke at the National Press Club here on St. Patrick's Day, once again pushing his message of peace in an atmosphere where neither the Roman Catholic Sinn Fein nor Protestant hard-liners within his own party were willing to compromise. But he hasn't given up on the Good Friday accords that set up a power-sharing government. The people of Northern Ireland, who voted to approve the accords, should not be ready to forget the peace process either.

At the time he spoke, the four-party Northern Irish executive government had been frozen by the British government. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) had refused to disarm, making sitting together with the IRA-linked Sinn Fein an impossibility for the Unionists, who had stipulated they would only rule in a shared government should the decommissioning occur promptly. Mr. Trimble tried to offer some measure of hope to the stalled peace process, saying he would be willing to sit in a Northern Irish executive with Sinn Fein, even if its IRA friends had not first decommissioned its arms. Mr. Trimble asked only that Sinn Fein prove the group's commitment to get the IRA to disarm was more than rhetoric.

Ironically, the media neglected to mention Mr. Trimble's expectation of Sein Fein's obligation in this deal, and the Unionist constituency back home was outraged at what was falsely seen as a sellout by the peace leader. At a subsequent Unionist party council meeting, Mr. Trimble's leadership was threatened when the Rev. Martin Smyth, who wants to get rid of the Good Friday peace agreement between the parties, won 43 percent of the vote. Though Mr. Trimble retained the majority with 57 percent, the strong showing by the hard-liners didn't bode well.

As multiparty meetings with the British and Irish governments take place in the next few weeks, Mr. Trimble will have to also overcome the following obstacles:

m Unionist Clifford Forsythe died Thursday, leaving his seat open for even more radical elements to influence policy during the peace process. Democratic Unionists, a hard-line Protestant element which would seek to dispense with the Good Friday accords, are making a strong effort to claim the seat for themselves in the next election. If and when there is another vote on the accords, this seat could have strong dissolving or unifying power.

• Mr. Trimble has proposed breaking ties with the Orange Order and limiting the vote of the Young Unionists, two radical, anti-agreement factions within the Unionist Council. Combined the two factions carry 154 votes of the 860 in the ruling council. Tension has risen in the party over the controversial measure, and the Young Unionists say he risks breaking up the Unionist party over such a reform.

• At the Unionist party council meeting, the party voted to sit with Sinn Fein only in a shared government if the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary remained unchanged. By widening the scope of stipulations, the radicals threaten to keep Sinn Fein from coming to the negotiating table.

The Unionists must realize they will write their own demise if they allow hard-liners to challenge Mr. Trimble's leadership. The Good Friday accords voted in by the people of Ulster may not be perfect, but those who would scrap it have no reasonable peace plan to replace it. Sectarian violence must not be considered a plausible alternative to peace.

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