The New Statesman Interview - David Trimble

"Intelligence sources tell us that the IRA is buying handguns for close-quarter killing." David Trim

David Trimble, First Minister designate of Northern Ireland and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, gives every impression of a man who really believes his political future is on the line. He says he holds out little hope for the Good Friday Agreement, which is the framework within which his present position is built.

He has three enemies who could make his continued political existence impossible. One is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam. The second is the future commissioner of the European Union, Chris Patten. And the third is Sinn Fein-IRA.

Mowlam recently announced that she thought the IRA had not broken its ceasefire - in spite of the murder of a Catholic taxi driver, allegedly an informer; in spite of its attempt to import 32 handguns; and in spite of hundreds of beatings and "kneecappings" of those in republican areas whom it deemed to have transgressed its codes. Mowlam made it clear the judgement was an "on balance" one and put the IRA on notice: as if in response, it pronounced five youths to be exiled from Northern Ireland, on pain of death.

"The policy decision on the ceasefire was clearly that of the government and I would not attribute that to a minister acting alone. That decision is of itself controversial here, of course. But what has led to a sense of outrage among people here is the manner of its announcement. The secretary of state spoke to me about half an hour before she made the announcement, to ensure I wasn't surprised at the decision. I then advised her to follow the line John Bruton (the former Irish prime minister) had advocated in a newspaper article, that of setting a high standard of behaviour. Of acknowledging that behaviour had fallen short of that and being appropriately condemnatory. And then to say - as to remedy, as to response, we have a problem. By doing it that way you would be maintaining your own standards, you wouldn't be accepting the standards of the terrorists, you wouldn't be giving in to them . . . She didn't do any of these things. She said she took account of what I said - which left me wondering how bad her statement would have been before she spoke to me!"

Mowlam had been excoriated earlier this week by Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionists' spokesman on security, who demanded her resignation. Trimble will say no more than, "I understand what Ken was saying", but will not repeat his own angry outburst at a press briefing in London earlier this year, at which he, too, demanded she went. But relations are and have long been very bad; the last time they met, he talked to her standing up in his outer office.

Trimble's new and more dangerous foe is the report of Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong and future European commissioner for external affairs, who has chaired a commission on the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Trimble expects the worst from the Patten Commission report, on which he will be briefed on 6 September, before its publication later in the week - for two reasons. First, he thinks the leaks published in the Belfast Telegraph were accurate and that they add up to a "disaster" for the political process as well as for policing the province. The second reason is that Trimble believes Patten has been "mugged". He says: "We shouldn't personalise this to Patten because there are ten people there and I understand that Patten acted as purely the chairman of the group. And rumour has it that he was mugged, or the group as a whole was mugged, in the final stages of preparing the report, by a cabal of three or four members pushing a particular line.

"We saw the leaks last week; one of the things that was not leaked was the future of the RUC Special Branch. That is critical. A determined effort will be made by the republican movement to dismantle the Special Branch - and that's the first line of defence that society has against terrorism, because of their role in intelligence-gathering.

"We understand that Patten is saying, 'we're not dismantling the RUC'. Frankly, that's not true. The name, the uniform, the badge, the flag and the undertaking - requiring everyone to take a new oath - that is a clear repudiation of the existing force.

"This proposal to create local police boards reflecting the balance of the local community and giving them the power to buy in alternative or extra services is very dangerous. It's all right to say that this is a power already used in England, and you can use it to employ park rangers and so on, but what is innocuous in England can be very dangerous in some areas of Northern Ireland.

"There are separate rumours coming out, from an internal review conducted by the Northern Ireland Office, on something called restorative justice - that a slice of the criminal law will be handed over to local community groups. So we could see paramilitaries taking over both policing and judicial functions. That's what it's going to mean in practice. As well as dismantling society's defences, we're going to be empowering paramilitaries without requiring paramilitaries to change. That's a ghastly prospect".

The lack of change in the paramilitaries deepens Trimble's pessimism. "You cannot," he says, "go back to business as usual with Sinn Fein . . . The overwhelming view in the unionist community, and quite rightly, is that they have broken their ceasefire with the beatings and the shootings. They are not alone - the loyalist paramilitaries have also indulged in gruesome things - but what is particularly worrying about the republicans is the importation of weapons. The IRA did it, no question - and the 32 weapons intercepted are part of a larger series of shipments, of which the authorities are not sure if this was the first."

The intelligence services, Trimble reveals, have learnt that the reasons advanced in republican circles for the importation of weapons is "that they had a shortage of high-quality handguns needed for close-quarter killings. The Belfast Brigade in particular needed these weapons. This is the word that's coming through. It's all very well having AK-47s, but you can't use them in built-up areas. These are not punishment weapons - you don't need high-quality handguns to shoot somebody through the keecaps. They're for close-quarter killing.

"I am not coming to any conclusion about Sinn Fein yet. I am saying that the events of the summer now mean that, before we get down to talking about the detail, we have to get this issue straight - it is fundamental to the process. But I don't think that the Sinn Fein leadership will rise to the challenge of declaring themselves for the democratic way. They have had 18 months to do it and they ain't done it yet, and in some ways they're going backwards. I can't see the prospect in the next month or two. Which means that I can't, as things stand at the moment, see any prospect of the review succeeding. And then - what next? I don't want to see the process collapse or to lose it. I want over the next few days to talk to the government and other parties, to share my concerns. The matter of forming an inclusive executive and the problem of decommissioning are important - but they are detail, compared to the fundamental question: is there indeed a commitment by paramilitaries to change?

"Maybe Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (president and chief negotiator of Sinn Fein) are sincere; maybe they're not. I don't know. However, if you give them the benefit of the doubt and say they might be sincere, you then have to conclude they have failed. They haven't succeeded in convincing the organisation to go the democratic route. And that's the fundamental thing."

It is this that Tony Blair is now being asked to "sort out" - a process that has ground to a halt. It is a bitter moment; the Good Friday Agreement was a great achievement and has fundamentally changed the climate in the province. But if unionism is to seek a historic compromise with nationalism, it must have a partner it can trust. And the leader of the Ulster Unionists has almost no more trust left to give.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?