In our wildest imagination, we never imagined a face-to-face interview with one of the top Protestant political leaders and fighters for justice and peace during “The Troubles,” which kept the blood flowing in Northern Ireland through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, a Catholic aligned with the Provisional IRA side, has been through Burlington, Vermont, a college town where Irish rebel songs have a following. But the majority Unionist side, which has held power in the Six Counties for centuries, has had little support in the Green Mountains, and we’ve never heard its songs played in a Burlington club.
So it was a bit of a stunner to get the call from one of U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy’s Capitol Hill staffers last Thursday evening, wondering if “Inside Track” would be interested in “10 minutes alone with David Trimble” on Friday, if it could be arranged.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Is this really happening?
Some readers may know about yours truly’s Irish connection. Dear ol’ Dad fought for Irish freedom in Michael Collins’ Dublin Brigade of 1920-21. So did his little brother Peter, our namesake. Only, unlike Dad, he didn’t live to see freedom won — his head was blown off by the British “Black & Tans.” Today “Black & Tan” is a popular name for a two-colored pint of Guinness Stout, which folks quaff without realizing what the name means or who the Black & Tans actually were. They were non-regular troops recruited out of British prisons, and they made their own rules of engagement.
The 1996 release of the Michael Collins movie  starring Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts, brought my IRA family history out of the closet, as they say.
But the IRA of the late 20th century in the Six Counties was a very different bunch. Noncombatants became fair targets, car bombs a favorite weapon, and we all watched the bloody horror from across the Atlantic, pints in hand and rebel songs on our lips.
As you know, peace has finally arrived in Northern Ireland. Religious factions praying to the same God finally sat down across a common table and spoke to one another.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for his brave efforts. He shared the prize with a Catholic, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labor Party.
Trimble was in Vermont with a delegation from the British Parliament that has met annually with its U.S. counterparts for 70 years. Leahy chaired the U.S. side this year and hosted the 3-day session. The short notice of their visit was, we suspect, due to security concerns. Following the opening luncheon at the ECHO Center on the Burlington waterfront Friday, the participants spent the weekend in Stowe.
St. Patrick held a press conference with Trimble, Conservative William Hague MP and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) at his side. The half-Irish/half-Italian Montpelier native praised the close relationship America has today with the nation we once revolted against.
“We have a special relationship with the United Kingdom,” said Leahy. “It’s a total sharing of intelligence. There’s no other nation on Earth in which we have that close of a relationship — and on the terrorism issue it’s not just daily but often minute-by-minute.”
When the presser broke up, Vermont’s senior senator introduced yours truly and Mr. Trimble. He had graciously agreed to a little one-on-one.
INSIDE TRACK: What’s the lesson David Trimble learned from that incredible political process that established a shared government in Northern Ireland, ending the terrorism, the car bombs and the bloodbath?
DAVID TRIMBLE: Every situation has its own particular characteristics, and it’s an awful mistake, I think, to assume because something happened in one situation, then you should try to do the same thing in a different one.
The difficulties in Northern Ireland, what we euphemistically call “The Troubles,” lasted for some 25 years. And it was fairly obvious, even at a fairly early stage, what the general shape of the outcome was going to be. But, nonetheless, it took 20 years before we actually were able to bring that about, because for a long time some of the parties to the conflict thought they could achieve an outright victory and defeat entirely their enemies. Whereas it was obvious that what we were going to have to do is to arrive at a situation where the various elements within society were going to have to learn to live together. And that involves accommodation.
And it wasn’t until all the parties were convinced by events that they would not achieve an outright victory, and they would have to then consider compromise, that an agreement became possible.
And with regards to those involved in terrorism, it wasn’t until the security forces were sufficiently effective to bring it home to those engaged in terrorism that their activities were futile and would fail, that we then actually had prepared to enter into the political arena.
And that success of the security forces was built upon the development of intelligence coming from within the communities which that terrorist organization drew support, and in many cases through the actual penetration of the terrorism gangs by the intelligence services.
The IRA only became interested in peace, in my view, when they discovered how deeply they’d been penetrated. But it took 10 to 15 years to do that, and it’s going to take, I fear, even longer before our intelligence services, Pakistani intelligence services, the Afghan intelligence services, the Iraqi intelligence services, can actually penetrate the Al Qaeda-related gangs that we’re up against.
IT: You prefaced your remarks by saying what’s happened in Northern Ireland doesn’t apply to other situations, but as you’re talking, I’m thinking of Shiite vs. Sunni in Baghdad, much like Catholic vs. Protestant in Northern Ireland.
Do you think of yourself as Irish?
DT: Not in the political sense. You then have to say, ‘What do you mean by that word?’
In terms of my political national identity, I’m British. The British concept is capable of embracing all the people within the British Isles, that’s where it comes from.
Unfortunately, we have some people in the British Isles who’ve been determined to say they’re different and separate and don’t want to be the same as everybody else. They now form a separate state called the ‘Irish Republic.’ And if that’s what they want to do, fine. That’s OK. I think they’ve made a mistake, but there we are.
IT: These have been very dark days in this country. The current president’s approval rating is so low, it’s frightening. People are angry. Fear is growing in America.
DT: I would say, actually, what is remarkable is how both here and, to a certain extent, also at home in the United Kingdom, there’s not been the follow-through, the follow-up from terrorism that we feared immediately would be the case after 9/11. And I think that’s partly a tribute to the effectiveness of the security forces here and there.
We’ve been very fortunate in Britain in that the recent attempts failed, and I would like to think because to some extent of the environment we’re working in. And it may even be to some extent we have made a serious attempt to disrupt the terrorists in the areas from which they come.
I know it’s enormously difficult in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was not possible, not conceivable that we should allow the organizers of the terrorism to be completely undisturbed and to have completely safe havens from which they could, at their own leisure, plan attacks on us.
Having said that, it has proven to be much more difficult than anticipated. But, I have to say, turning one’s back on that and letting these areas go back to the dictatorial control of terrorist elements is not going to make life any easier.
It’s no longer the case that you can say, because something is happening on the other side of the world, we can ignore it. That’s the lesson of 9/11. What hit the United States on 9/11 came from the other side of the world. We can’t separate ourselves from it. We can’t turn our back on it. We have this problem. We’re going to have to deal with it. We’re going to have to deal with it better than we’ve managed to do over the last few years, but the challenge is inescapable.
Yes, indeed. The challenge is totally inescapable.
Men Without Testicles? — Everyone in Vermont political circles has been jabbering this week over Terri Hallenbeck’s Monday front-pager in The Burlington Free Press: “2008: Up in the Air.” All about the unusual and embarrassing fact that the Vermont Democratic Party lacks a gubernatorial candidate for the 2008 race, or even the mention of one.
State Sen. Peter Shumlin of Putney, long considered a politician with his eye on Montpeculiar’s Fifth Floor and the know-how to get there, publicly removed himself from consideration. His successful company, Putney Student Travel, recently landed a big, big contract with National Geographic to run tours to Africa, and Lord knows where else. It’s telling when a pol allows himself to be quoted saying, “I don’t have the ambition I used to.”
Ambition is, after all, a necessary ingredient in the makeup of a politician. Too much or too little, however, can be deadly.
Over in the blogosphere, yours truly mentioned in “Freyne Land ” the other day that, according to our inside sources, Ian Carleton, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party (an early title on Howard Dean’s political resume), had given serious thought to taking a shot at three-term incumbent Republican Jim Douglas.
Carleton quickly denied he had given it “serious thought,” though he told us many had urged him to consider a candidacy.
This came on the heels of the Vermont mainstream press ignoring Chairman Carleton’s “attack” press release painting Gov. Douglas as unethical because the state of Vermont rented, and then bought, trailers to use as office space from a Barre, Vermont, company that had donated $1100 to his election campaign.
The firm could have donated up to $2000. It’s a free country. The only “news” value was that the ambitious party chair was trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. Carleton was also trying to change the subject after two failed, embarrassing attempts by Democrats to override Gov. Scissorhands’ bold vetoes of their top legislative priorities of the 2007 session: global warming and campaign finance reform.
A little mystery remains in the fact that the only Democrat with a realistic outside chance of victory did not take himself completely out of consideration in the Freeps story. In fact, Matt Dunne’s wife, Sarah Stewart Taylor, actually writes murder mysteries! Dunne of Hartland, a former state senator who lost to incumbent Brian Dubie in the 2006 Lite-Gov race, says he won’t decide until fall.
Today we’re hearing it’s very likely Young Dunne, a bright, energetic and ambitious thirtysomething, will make a go of it.
Because in 2008, Marvelous Matt won’t have to worry about or pay for a Democrat Party primary fight. If Dunne chickens out now and waits for King James the Incumbent to retire in 2010, he likely would lose to State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding in a primary. But Spaulding, Carleton and Shumlin appear to think Gov. Douglas cannot be beaten.
In 2008, Dunne would have a clear, open track to demonstrate he has what other leading Democrats on the statewide stage appear to metaphorically lack: “balls.”
Could be the magic ingredient, eh?