The discriminating David Trimble

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Wed Dec 18 05:41:57 MST 2002

The chutzpah of David Trimble

To complain about discrimination when it is the foundation of your political
tradition takes some cheek

Niall Stanage
Wednesday December 18, 2002
The Guardian

David Trimble has a lot to say about prejudice these days. In the midst of
his public wooing of Britain's Tories last week, the Ulster Unionist leader
took the opportunity to accuse the Labour party of discrimination,
apparently because of its refusal to let residents of Northern Ireland
become members. And he recently told American newspaper executives that the
Irish republic wouldn't have a reason to exist "if you took away Catholicism
and anti-Britishness".

Trimble's chutzpah should be met with derision. One would never guess from
his finger-wagging utterances that the entire history of his party - and of
unionism in a broader sense - is characterised by bigotry and injustice.
These malignancies are not confined to the past. The anti-Catholic Orange
Order continues to hold an elevated place within the Ulster Unionist party.
Trimble, like every UUP leader, is an Orangeman.

The rhetoric of unionism has traditionally been laced with references to
"decent" Protestant people stoically enduring the - apparently motiveless -
terrorism of "evil men". Unionism's cheerleaders in Britain emphatically
endorse this view, just as they indulge Trimble's delusions of statesmanship
and even raise the spectre of him becoming Tory leader. In reality, the
IRA's campaign, and the tacit support it received from many nationalists,
was mainly a response to the inequity of unionist-dominated Northern

Lord Craigavon, the statelet's first prime minister, infamously described
Stormont as "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people". Its record
bore him out. The Unionist party governed in an unbroken stretch from 1922
until 1972. In that time, only a single opposition bill passed into law. Its
subject? The protection of wild birds.

Every branch of the state was cankered. At the beginning of the 1960s,
Northern Ireland's civil service was 94% Protestant. By the start of the
Troubles a decade later, 39 out of 44 members of the Northern Ireland
judiciary were Protestant. Council houses were routinely allocated to
Protestants over Catholics across the north. Unionist rule also gave
Northern Ireland the B Specials - ostensibly an auxiliary police force, in
truth a Protestant militia - and the flagrant rigging of electoral
boundaries. Gerrymandering reached its nadir in Derry, where 9,000
Protestant voters were represented by 12 city councillors, while 14,000
Catholic voters could elect only eight. The crunch came when a civil rights
movement sprang up to challenge these wrongs. Eminently reasonable demands
for change precipitated an existential crisis for the state. Security forces
were deployed at the behest of the unionist establishment to beat civil
rights marchers off the streets.

The brutality breathed new and vigorous life into the supine body of
militant Irish republicanism - if the state is irreformable, the logic ran,
the dismantling of the state is a prerequisite for achieving justice. The
convulsions were intense. In 1972, Northern Ireland's bloodiest year, Edward
Heath collapsed Stormont and introduced direct rule from London. Unionism's
malevolent influence continued. It manifested itself in resistance to
reform, demands for an authoritarian security policy and a willingness to
countenance the nakedly sectarian deeds of loyalist paramilitaries.

The degree of separation between "respectable" unionism and "paramilitary"
loyalism has often been exaggerated. The words of politicians have, at the
very least, provided inspiration and succour for the gunmen.

In the early 1970s, David Trimble was political adviser to the leader of the
hardline Ulster Vanguard movement, William Craig. Craig had a fondness for
organising Mosleyite-style rallies. He told one such gathering, in 1972, "we
must build up dossiers on those men and women who are a menace to this
country, because, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to
liquidate the enemy". Asked years later about this speech, Trimble mildly
replied that it had been "over the top".

Politicians worked hand-in-hand with paramilitaries to bring down the
power-sharing executive in 1974. Associations continued for the duration of
the troubles. The stifling of Irish nationalism - and, by extension, the
subjugation of the Catholic population - has consistently been a primary aim
of unionists. Many of them have been willing to endorse any means to achieve
this. This has supposedly changed. But by how much? Trimble - lauded in
Britain and beyond as the personification of moderate unionism - won the
leadership of his party by marching Portadown Orangemen triumphantly down
the nationalist Garvaghy Road. Now he spends much of his time trying to
delay the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, just as his party
continues to frustrate attempts to overcome the legacy of one-party rule, in
everything from policing to equality legislation. He is entitled to lecture
others about their wrongdoings if he feels so inclined. But he should not be
allowed to forget the rottenness at the heart of unionism.

· Niall Stanage is editor of Magill magazine in Dublin.

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