- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2000

Two years after they won the Nobel Peace Prize together for aiding the peace process in Northern Ireland, John Hume and David Trimble are facing early retirement from their leadership posts. As co-leaders in the new Northern Irish executive government they have worked years to forge, they have devoted all their energies to the peace process, often with little thanks from their people. An exhausted Mr. Hume, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) leader, announced his resignation of his seat in the Northern Irish Assembly last month. Now First Minister Trimble is under pressure to resign after his party lost a key by-election contest last week to foes of the agreement that established the shared government. With a significant loss in support from his party in the Assembly, and in his own party council, Mr. Trimble faces an uncertain future as he heads into his party conference Oct. 7.

While he survived a narrow vote to dissolve the new Northern Irish government in May, Mr. Trimble faces an even tougher crowd this time. Members of his party disclosed that they have the signatures necessary to call an emergency meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, where they plan to challenge his leadership. The members said this would most likely occur within two weeks of the party conference.

This challenge comes at the end of a string of disappointments since the new government temporarily stripped of its power by Britain was revived four months ago. Protestant Unionists had been hopeful that inspections of arms belonging to Roman Catholic militants in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) would lead to the elimination or decommissioning of the weapons, and that Unionists' place in the new government would protect their pro-British interests. But only the most minimal effort has gone into reviewing the IRA's arms cache.

Unionists also face the loss of symbols precious to them. Legislation to be considered by the House of Lords would change the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to something more befitting a police force divided into equal portions of Roman Catholics and Protestants. Further, the bill would reduce the number of buildings and days on which the Unionist flag can be flown.

Mr. Trimble is using the by-election defeat to push Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson to keep the name of the RUC in the policing legislation, to increase the visibility of the Unionist flag, and most importantly, to push the international monitors to make another inspection of the IRA's arms dumps. Without at least some concession on these requests, Mr. Trimble, who has vowed not to resign in light of the by-election, could easily be forced to step down by his restless party.

Unionists would be defeating themselves if they vote him out. With no moderate alternative to Mr. Trimble, the new Northern Irish executive, and the peace agreement itself, will be left to radicals on both sides. And that, as recent history shows, is a contest no side can win.

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