David Trimble, the unlikely architect of peace who broke the mould of unionist politics for the common good

I never got to know David Trimble well but when I first met him in the early 1970s he was a bright young thing in Bill Craig’s Vanguard secession from the crumbling Ulster Unionist party. Vanguard held quasi- fascist rallies, flirted with the idea of loyal rebellion to take on the IRA and was passionately opposed to power sharing. Trimble was one of those who tried gave Vanguard intellectual gloss over the sinister threats of Craig and the foam flecked rants of Ernie Baird.  For a while Vanguard was more influential than Paisley. It became a separate party. But it subsided in the wake of the UWC strike, as if actual rebellion was too much for them. Craig did a U turn by recommending a voluntary coalition and was duly defeated by Peter Robinson. I often wonder what Trimble learned from the worst of times. Liberal unionism certainly didn’t work; but was there a more robust form of engagement that might?

He re-emerged from Queen’s in 1995  after the Molyneaux years,  when it became clear that immobilisme was not enough  to protect the Union  from the influence of the dreaded south through  the  Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985.  The old party had at least re-formed. He was the hardline candidate for leader and unexpectedly defeated the establishment candidate John Taylor. His style and often his manner fitted his reputation. Suspicious almost to the point of paranoia over any supposed insult to unionists, rude at times to the extent that some wondered if he was autistic, never letting go and worrying a point of dispute to death.  But he was also that rare thing, a unionist politician who was prepared to argue his case in Irish as well as “British Ulster” terms. He was an intellectual. When he had worked out his position, I think he surprised himself as well as most of his party.  But he stuck to his guns and led from the front, often – too often – alone.  His main dissident was Jeffrey Donaldson.

Trimble turned out to be the perfect Nixon goes to China character for what became the peace process. No woolly liberal,  his philosophy was conservative and fitted his personality.  Just after the Good Friday Agreement had been struck, he revealed his thinking in the all too brief honeymoon upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with John Hume . Naturally Trimble’s hero was Edmund Burke, the Anglo- Irish politician and philosopher who was a supporter of American independence but the scourge of the Terror in the French Revolution.   Never one to shirk stereotypes, this was a position well attuned to Trimble’s self image as a practical Ulster Protestant in contrast to the dangerous dreamers  who are  Irish Catholics.

Instinctively, I identify with the person who said that when he heard a politician talk of his vision, he recommended him to consult an optician!

Because (Burke) is the philosopher of practical politics, not of visionary vapours, because his beliefs correspond to empirical experience, he may be a good general guide to the practical politics of peacemaking…

… the problem arises if political fanatics bury themselves within a morally legitimate political movement. Then there is a double danger. The first is that we might dismiss legitimate claims for reform because of the barbarism of terrorist groups bent on revolution.

In that situation experience would suggest that the best way forward is for democrats to carry out what the Irish writer Eoghan Harris calls acts of good authority. That is, acts addressed to their own side.

Thus each reformist group has a moral obligation to deal with its own fanatics. Because politics is not an exact science, but partakes of human nature within the contingent circumstances of the moment, I have not pressed the paramilitaries on the details of decommissioning. Although I am under pressure from my own political community I have not insisted on precise dates quantities and manner of decommissioning. All I have asked for is a credible beginning. All I have asked for is that they say that the “war” is over. And that is proved by such a beginning. That is not too much to ask for. Nor is it too much to ask that the reformist party of nationalism, the SDLP, support me in this.

But common sense dictates that I cannot for ever convince society that real peace is at hand if there is not a beginning to the decommissioning of weapons as an earnest of the decommissioning of hearts that must follow. Any further delay will reinforce dark doubts about whether Sinn Fein are drinking from the clear stream of democracy, or is still drinking from the dark stream of fascism. It cannot for ever face both ways.

This lack of precision was both essential to the making of the Agreement and its basic flaw. Trimble spotted it when Gerry Adams insisted on it.

For the Agreement did not indeed spell out a timetable for arms decommissioning. But all parts of the Agreement, the three strands, police reform, parity of esteem for culture and languages- and paramilitary disarmament were to be phased together. Not good enough for the UUs. Trimble looked like losing his party.  Collapse at the last minute loomed.  It was Tony Blair who did just enough to take it through. In a letter which is not formally part of the Agreement Blair pledged:

If, during the course of the first six months of the shadow assembly or the assembly itself, these provisions have been shown to be ineffective, we will support changes to these provisions to enable them to be made properly effective in preventing such people from holding office. Furthermore, I confirm that, in our view, the effect of the decommissioning section of the agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June, is that the process of decommissioning should begin straight away.”

We know what happened. The cycle of Assembly suspensions began and continues to this day. The vision – if I dare call it that- of Trimble’s Nobel oration still awaits fulfilment.  He did not survive as first minister to see the fulfilment of decommissioning in 2005. Neither the governments nor the parties dared call the republican bluff. They remembered all too well the IRA Docklands bombing of 1996 which brutally set the scene which nevertheless led to the Stormont talks. But as they say, Trimble had “done the heavy lifting.” The intimate enemy Paisley cheerfully bore a lighter load until he too was defenestrated.    If the GFA managed to survive the paramilitaries it may yet survive sectarian and inter-communal rivalries.

Greatly to his credit Trimble never regretted the Agreement although he had plenty to say about its faulty implementation. He has been a leading authority for the Conservatives’ position on the Protocol. “If Lord Trimble says the Protocol violates the Agreement, that’s good enough for me” runs the Tory refrain.

David Trimble’s and legacy and reputation are greater than that. He knew what a divided community had to do to live in peace and unionists, to survive.  He showed that close engagement  pays off  even if it falls short of  nirvana. It’s a lesson  his successors should take to heart.

David Trimble paid a high price in the interests of peace and a viable political future by sacrificing himself and ultimately his once dominant party. There are worse fates.

Biographies of David Trimble during the Stormont negotiations are by Dean Godson and Frank Millar. The latter vividly shares an insider’s close experience of life inside the Ulster Unionist party of the time.                    

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