David Trimble, who died last Monday aged 77 deserved the accolade of major statesman. All of those involved in the Good Friday Agreement including Irish republicans are clear that without him there would have been no Agreement. At the very least, any settlement between the British Government and the IRA would have been more limited and contested, and even less effective than the actual Agreement.
He is only one of six UK citizens to receive a Nobel Peace Prize since the second world war and his name appears on an exalted list alongside Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa. In a sense he was the right man at the right time. All four Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to UK citizens in the last half century have been connected with Northern Ireland. Two went to the now largely forgotten Peace People’s Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams in 1976 and the other to David Trimble’s co-winner John Hume. The violence in Northern Ireland was a major embarrassment to liberal sensibilities across Europe and anyone who played a significant role in attempting to end the Troubles was extravagantly praised. The Nobel Committee was even rumoured to want to include Gerry Adams in the 1998 prize but would never have got David Trimble’s agreement to be part of that ridiculous triumvirate.
Within Ireland, David Trimble was always regarded as a hardline unionist and is still being described as such in BBCNI and in other media assessments of his contribution. I well remember being at an annual British Irish Association conference in 1995 when his election as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was announced. The BIA conference was, and is, an annual get-together of the liberal elite from Ireland, Northern Ireland and those in GB interested in Ireland, which is always held in an Oxbridge College. The news of his election was greeted as if were the end of the world. All hopes of peace in Northern Ireland were, in their eyes, dashed by the election of this uncompromising hardliner, for whom there was little good that could be said.
His image in the media and elsewhere was as an Orangeman who had campaigned against nationalist attempts to reroute orange marches away from traditional routes where these came even tangentially close to nationalist housing, a role he famously shared with Ian Paisley. His background along with Reg (now Lord) Empey, as a member of the Vanguard movement was well known. Vanguard was a political party between 1972 and 1979, which split away from the mainstream Ulster Unionist party and was close to the various loyalist paramilitary groups. What the bien pensant liberals got wrong (as they so often do) was Trimble’s high intelligence as a senior Queens University law lecturer. It never occurred to them that an intelligent and thoughtful leader of Northern Ireland’s main unionist party would be an asset in securing peace.
If he flirted with paramilitaries, it was because he like many other unionists felt that the UK government could not be trusted to defend the union against a violent Irish Republican onslaught with implicit support from at least some politicians in the Irish Republic. The British preference for neutrality, with famously unhelpful statements asserting no selfish economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland, had the obvious consequence of pressing unionists to look to their own defence.
David Trimble was always a staunch and rational believer in the unionist cause. His community was that of British Protestants who had been in Ulster for 400 years, and longer than Europeans in North America or Australasia. Their position had been under pressure and often physical attack since democracy spread in the 19th century and their minority position on the island became a weakness. Their lack of trust in successive British governments did not however strengthen the unionist position and counter-violence by loyalist paramilitaries only led to a loss of sympathy and support across the UK and the wider world. David Trimble recognized this and chose to become a mainstream politician. His ‘hardline’ positions over such things as orange marches would not have been needed if UK governments had taken a firmer line in maintaining the union, but with a large, growing and determined nationalist minority, UK governments always felt compromised. They did however provide the money and troops to maintain Northern Ireland’s economy and its position within the union, even if they did so without much enthusiasm. When Tony Blair built on John Major’s determination to persuade the IRA to give up violence, the UK Government had the moral right to dictate terms to unionists. David Trimble recognized that if the UUP did not join in the negotiations a deal would be done over their heads.
Once he reached this position he worked honestly and hard to secure an agreement. That the agreement favoured nationalists more than unionists was unavoidable. An estimated 96% of Catholics approved the agreement but only a little over half of Protestants with most of the latter desperate to end the relentless and pointless violence and destruction at almost any political price. If he signed up to an agreement that guaranteed Irish unity in the event of a border poll majority of even 50% plus one, then this seemed far enough in the future to take the risk.
Other aspects of the 1998 Agreement were impractical but unavoidable. The NI Assembly was designed so that any party with around 15% of the vote, including those formed by paramilitaries, would gain ministers in the Executive as part of a complex involuntary coalition. Together with the rules to prevent majorities dominating minorities, the Agreement has proved unstable with the Executive and Assembly suspended more often than operating, as is the case at present. All of this was foreseen by Trimble’s unionist opponents. Following the Agreement his UUP quickly lost around two thirds of their previous supporters and nine of their ten Westminster seats. By 2002 the DUP took over as a main unionist party, being seen as more reliable defenders of the newly weakened unionist position. He did however draw the line at allowing the IRA to keep their weapons even as their representatives entered the Assembly. I vividly remember his endless meetings slowly but relentlessly convincing his party’s reluctant MLAs to remain with the process.
Nevertheless, most of Northern Ireland and all of the wider world were grateful that the civil war was ended. David Trimble asserted that the union was secure and his critics were wrong. He served as First Minister for four difficult years. Although little was achieved in economic or social terms his achievement was to operate a power-sharing government and to do much to force the IRA to give up their weapons. His party was ruined in the process and has never really recovered, but the achievement remains. His intellectual confidence allowed him to take on advisors with PhDs. As soon as he was deposed the UUP returned to its anti-intellectual norm.
A quarter century on from 1998 his claim of a secure union has been borne out, even if Brexit came to rock the boat more vigorously than he can have expected. His Euroscepticism was a major characteristic for as long as I knew him and his strong support for Brexit was not a surprise. He did however underestimate how destabilizing the referendum would be, after remainers achieved a 56% majority in Northern Ireland.
Having risked so much in achieving the GFA he was fully justified in opposing the NI Protocol which he saw clearly was undermining the Agreement even as Brussels claimed it was doing the opposite. He approved of the Liz Truss’s Protocol Bill, based on David Frost’s 2021 Command paper and would surely have supported Truss for Conservative leader. His enduring legacy will always be his central role in ending the tragedy of three thousand and seven hundred people killed during the Troubles. His own side should also remember that he secured the best terms available for unionism once the UK prime minister had decided that a deal with the IRA must be done.
Dr Graham Gudgin was Special Advisor to David Trimble as First Minister 1998-2002. An edited version of this article was published on the spiked website at David Trimble: the unexpected peacemaker – spiked (spiked-online.com)