Trimble's referendum Davida Trimble is a canny campaigner in his own cause but he does not know much about winning friends and influencing people. Last Sunday he called the Republic of Ireland a “pathetic, sectarian, mono–ethnic, mono–cultural state”. As First Minister of Northern Ireland he should know better than to indulge in descriptive language which is both offensive and inaccurate. These words came in the course of a speech in which he proposed an early referendum in Northern Ireland to determine the population's preference between remaining in the United Kingdom or becoming a part of the Republic.

Such a referendum is provided for in the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and can be called by the UK's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Forecasts of the result of last year's census suggest that Protestants in Northern Ireland now have only a bare majority over Catholics (although many of the latter are not yet of voting age) and this may have led Mr Trimble to call for a referendum sooner rather than later in order, as he said, ”to copper fasten this issue and settle it for a generation.” Most dictionaries define a generation as being “about thirty years” but the First Minister is mistaken if he thinks that a vote for remaining in the UK would necessarily stand for that long. The Good Friday Agreement says only that seven years must elapse between one referendum and another. Mr Trimble may have been surprised by the welcome given to his proposal by Sinn Fein although the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern said he saw no need for a referendum at the present time.


EU reform agenda
The gathering of European Union heads of government in Barcelona at the end of this week promises to be a lively affair. There are growing signs of impatience among some governments with the creaking decision–making machinery of the EU. Javier Solana, who doubles as the EU's foreign policy chief and secretary–general of the Council of ministers, has reportedly put proposals to Jose Maria Aznar, who will host the Barcelona summit, for reform of the top layers of EU ministerial decision– making including the six month rotating presidencies, the annual four summits and the monthly gatherings of foreign ministers. There is no denying that the policy–making machinery of the EU, designed for the original six members, cannot cope with the present membership of fifteen, let alone with the prospective twenty–five or thirty due to become members under the enlargement process.

There is, however, a danger of pushing for reforms now which are already the concern of the Convention on the future of the EU headed by Valery Giscard d'Estaign; he and his team are consulting very widely and on the whole it would be better to wait for his considered recommendations in a year's time than to rush into changes which might have to be reviewed later on. However keen those at the Barcelona summit may be for reform, it is unlikely that anyone will suggest that the second summit of Spain's presidency, set for Seville in June, should not take place.