Can This Man Keep Ulster On The Road To Peace?

A ruddy-faced man in a dark, pin-striped suit leads a small band of politicians through Bangor, a peaceful, mostly Protestant, seaside town in Northern Ireland. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, is campaigning for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections on June 25. He assures worried voters that the Apr. 9 peace deal was a big win for those who want to keep the province British. "The republicans have been outmaneuvered," he tells an elderly couple in confidential tones.

Belfast's top republican, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, grabs most of the media attention. But the 53-year-old Trimble is Northern Ireland's pivotal figure. He confounded observers by gambling on the peace deal despite opposition from other leaders of his party. Then, he persuaded his mainly Protestant following to back the deal massively in a referendum. Now, Trimble is set to become First Minister of a provincial government that will take back local administration from London next year.

Trimble faces a delicate task in maintaining the momentum toward permanent peace. Given the long and bitter troubles in Northern Ireland, the political situation still could go badly awry. The government would be paralyzed if enough Protestant opponents of the peace deal win Assembly seats, for example. Besides, this summer's season of traditional sectarian marches could turn violent.

TOURIST BOOM. Moreover, after 25 years of direct rule from London, few politicians in Northern Ireland have any experience in government. Trimble, a former law professor, does not; only two candidates for the 108 Assembly seats do. Business worries about his sketchy economic program, although he argues that return of full democracy will spur investment. "Just getting a government up and running will be the main achievement," he says. "Policy issues are secondary."

He may be right. Investment will come in, provided the peace process continues. A tourism boom is in the cards. And multinationals are drawn to the province's skilled and relatively cheap workforce.

Despite the strains that show in his face, Trimble keeps a sense of humor. Asked if he plays golf on the lush courses around Belfast, Trimble replies: "I have no healthy pursuits." But life in the province is no joke. Trimble says some of the residents of his own Portadown constituency are so angry about the peace deal that it is not safe for him to visit parts of it.

Behind the scenes, though, Trimble is forging links that will help him wield power, notably with the Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP), the mainstream party of the Catholic minority. If the election goes as expected, Northern Ireland will be run by a coalition of his Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.

How Adams and Sinn Fein--likely fourth-place finishers in the election--fit in is unclear. Trimble is adamant that republicans won't get any ministerial posts until they renounce violence unambiguously. The Irish Republican Army is signaling that it is willing to destroy its arms. Still, for republicans, the problem remains that the peace deal falls far short of the united Ireland they desired. "It is a historic defeat [for them]," says Paul Bew, professor of Irish history at Queen's University of Belfast.

But Trimble may succeed. Few analysts thought he could drag his party as far as he has toward peace. Despite his tough talk, he clearly has vision and political skill. It would be smart for Trimble, as leader of the winning side, to be as generous as his constituents will allow.

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