The beam that blinds tribal eyes
He likes intellectual challenge, which is why he chose as his biographer a Jewish, half-American, anti-Belfast Agreement journalist who makes him think and makes him laugh, and why he has applied for a House of Commons researcher's pass for a convicted IRA murderer, Seán Ó Callaghan. One of his advisers is openly gay and his favourite foreign statesman is Cyril Ramaphosa of the ANC.
Though Trimble is very much of his Ulster Protestant tribe, intellectually and emotionally he is far less constrained by tribal beliefs and prejudices than most politicians North and South. However, in his loathing of dissimulation and meaningless rhetoric, and his penchant for telling it like it is, he is a true Ulster Prod and therefore bound frequently to offend a tribe like ours that loves the soft word and resents criticism.
Such was the carry-on about his recent speech that I requested clarification. We met in London on Monday afternoon; he and his wife Daphne had just come from a service at Westminster Abbey honouring Commonwealth Day and Queen Elizabeth's golden jubilee. Representatives of 54 countries processed with their flags, speakers came from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i and Sikh communities, and there was Indian dancing, African singing, a few rousing hymns and, of course, God Save the Queen. Being patriotic, lovers of pageantry and mad about music, both Trimbles had hugely enjoyed themselves.
We addressed ourselves to his description of the Republic as a "pathetic, sectarian, mono-ethnic, monocultural state", which, to Trimble's irritation, had distracted attention from his proposal that a Border poll be held next year to help stabilise Northern Irish politics. What with commentators doing sectarian head-counts in advance of the census results, Gerry Adams contravening the agreement by referring to the illegal status of Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin pushing the united-Ireland agenda, the only way to stop the triumph of anti-agreement unionism at the next Assembly election is to put the issue of constitutional change to bed for at least seven years. Sinn Féin and the SDLP do not oppose a poll; Dublin does.
TRIMBLE makes no apology for the thrust of what he said, but he does regret that the word pathetic - which he did not use in his speech - appeared in the printed version. He pointed out, however, that it is usually impossible to get the Republic to listen to any explanations as to why unionists value being part of the United Kingdom. "If I go down to Dublin on my best behaviour and talk to everyone politely," he said, "they think I'm coming round to the idea of a united Ireland. Sometimes, to make your point, you have to kick over a chair."
Hard to argue with that. His language has certainly set off an overdue debate. Trimble is the first to admit the sectarianism of Northern Ireland, but like many unionists he is frustrated that nationalists ceaselessly insult Ulster Protestant culture, while becoming deeply wounded the moment any unionist criticises them. That, of course, is part of what we are. In my youth, we knew unionists were bigots because they talked about Rome Rule and the Banana Republic. Decades on and many scandals and tribunals later, we say things like that ourselves about our past, but think all has changed utterly so there is nothing to criticise. Tame clerics are on hand to say Protestants are happy; Samantha Mumba proves we are diverse; and we laud other cultures - except, of course, the culture of our unionist neighbours or of those we call West Brits.
Well, sorry, but to Mr and Mrs Ulster Prod and to dissident southern Protestants the situation in the Republic looks very different. "It is," said Trimble, presaging what Wesley Boyd said yesterday about the Angelus, "the only country in Europe where the six o'clock news starts at one minute past."
MUCH is being made of the No vote last week, but the truth is that the Government did a deal with the Catholic Church and ignored any other religious group. In the very recent past John Bruton was punished for taking the pluralist view that the Irish Government should be concerned with the well-being of all the people of Northern Ireland, not just nationalists, and the Orange Order was prevented from parading in Dawson Street. The Constitution still has sectarian elements, and, despite agreement obligations, the Government ignores such minorities as the Donegal Protestant community and has done almost nothing to encourage reconciliation with unionists at grass-roots level.
Above all, what really makes Mr and Mrs Prod fed up is that the Republic is so transfixed by "Aren't-we-great? ism" that it thinks itself irresistible. Most unionists see the Republic as a predator and want nothing to do with a culture which they see as distinguished by Anglophobia, hypocrisy, sneaking regardism and pubs offering craic agus ceol. They visit their cousins in Scotland, Canada, Australia and the US, or, if they are David and Daphne Trimble, spend their holidays immersed in the culture of England, Italy, France or Germany. And they doubt if the Republic will ever, ever, look at the beam in its own eye.
Ruth Dudley Edwards is a historian and journalist. Mary Holland is on leave.
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