DAVID TRIMBLE seems as anxious for news media attention as his predecessor was to avoid it.
Despite the fact that James Molyneaux was the head of the single largest political party in Northern Ireland, he was not well-known outside the country. When he retired as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) at a crucial stage in the fragile peace process, there was no obvious successor.
Of all the possible candidates, Mr. Trimble was the most unlike Mr. Molyneaux in style and the most unlikely to win. Saying at first that he would not run, Trimble was soon persuaded to enter the race. With his dramatic style and caustic comments, he stood out among the other, rather drab, candidates.
In the US after his election, Trimble appeared confident and at ease in what could be viewed as the hostile territory of Irish-America. He spoke without notes and fielded questions from his audiences. A lawyer who was elected to Parliament only five years ago, Trimble cultivated a high-visibility image. The youngest of the five leadership candidates, he was also somewhat of an unknown quantity.
Trimble could be the best or the worst thing to have happened to the peace process. Though often outspoken, he appears to be a pragmatist who realizes that a flair for public relations goes a long way. This is an important month for the peace process, with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams also visiting the US, and President Clinton's important visit to Northern Ireland, which many hope will jump-start the stalling peace process.
The summer months in Northern Ireland are always tense as the ''marching season'' gets under way. This year, as the peace process ground to a halt, July was particularly strained, with separate communities arguing about where and when the marches should take place.
Matters came to a head in Portadown, when the police attempted to reroute a march by Protestants, preventing it from going through a largely nationalist area. When the Orangemen, as these Protestants are called, were unable to march, good old-fashioned siege mentality surfaced and the march turned into a rally in the local church hall. In Northern Ireland in July, trouble is never far away.
Trimble is part of the Orange Order, a Protestant-Irish society, and was present at this incident. The deadlock lasted for days and sparked off incidents throughout the province, including road blocks, street violence, and other disturbances. When tension turned into trouble, Trimble was in the thick of it, his rhetoric contributing to the difficulties.
Yet he also assisted in negotiating an end to the standoff. Eventually, a compromise was reached (although neither side would be willing to call it that). The march took place, but with certain conditions attached: It was held peacefully and in silence, without the usual pipe bands and Protestant songs, under the watchful eye of the police and crowds of resentful nationalist residents. Such arrangements are rare in Northern Ireland, since it often takes a minor riot to make anything happen.
As the largest and more moderate of the unionist parties, the UUP occupies a unique position in Northern Ireland politics and in the current peace process. When Trimble won the election in September, he promised to continue strong links with Britain and to keep the faith of old-time unionism. At the same time, he hoped to make the UUP an agent of persuasion, highlighting its cause more successfully than in recent years.
Before Molyneaux resigned, there were suggestions of breaking ties with the Orange Order to attract Catholics who may support union with Britain but feel they cannot vote for any of the unionist parties because of their staunch Protestantism.
Trimble's Orangeism and hard-line stance do not improve the prospects of a wider support base. However much he manages to boost the party's image, his vague suggestion that the UUP could merge with the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party do little to reassure moderates that the UUP may be more flexible than in recent years.
Having arrived in Washington recently to promote the cause of unionism and deliberately target Irish-Americans, Trimble has proved that, in some ways at least, he is more progressive than his predecessors. Since he is the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland, it is ironic that his visit received little of the news media attention bestowed on Mr. Adams, whose Sinn Fein organization wins only about 10 percent to 11 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland.
Instead, Trimble was greeted by an advertisement in The New York Times comparing him to former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke. Not only does this insult Trimble, it also insults many moderate people in Northern Ireland who want union with Britain for political and economic reasons.
The ad was placed by misinformed Irish-Americans who have interfered in the affairs of Northern Ireland by sending money to the IRA. The IRA has in turn used that money to purchase weapons, injure and kill civilians, and destroy homes and jobs.
This is precisely why many unionists continue to be wary of the United States and have, therefore, tended to ignore rather than court its opinion, unlike the predominantly Catholic nationalists.
TRIMBLE spoke at length about the role of the US in the faltering peace process, impressing upon his audience the importance of neutrality. The US must be impartial in its dealings with both sides, but it can't be neutral about the choice between peace and democracy, violence and intimidation. He said the US must use its considerable influence to achieve peace through democratic methods.
Trimble understands that for too long moderate unionists have been ignored, misrepresented, or upstaged by extremists such as Mr. Paisley. The party must stop being its own worst enemy. Trimble has always advocated democratic and nonviolent methods, but during his leadership, the UUP will be forced to arm itself with new weapons in what has become a news media war.