The death of David Trimble will not be marked by the same fawning saturated media coverage of his fellow Nobel peace prize winner John Hume. When the two winners were announced many nationalists thought he didn’t deserve the prize but was awarded it because it could not be given only to a nationalist. It was part of the whole ’equality of the two traditions’ motif that characterised the whole process.
It wasn’t so much because of the personality traits that even respectful obituary writers found impossible not to mention of him. That Peter Mandelson said he had ‘never encountered anyone as rude in my life’; or that he had a ’notorious temper’ passed down from a grandfather who was in the Royal Irish, and then Royal Ulster, Constabulary; or that he was argumentative just like his father. Neither was it his arrogant angry public persona.
Bertie Ahern in ‘The Irish Times’ couldn’t help noting that he had ‘a short fuse’; the obituary in ‘The Irish News’ labelled him ‘to some extent a cynical politician’, and ‘The Belfast Telegraph’ political commentator stated that ‘he was a hard man to like.’ Much the same could be said about Hume, although he usually hid it better.
For someone who was a unionist politician for decades and then leader, it says something that Arlene Foster, who trod the same path, thought it necessary to state that ‘I never doubted that David fundamentally believed in the Union’, which must sit beside other observations that the Pope is a Catholic.
The much-hyped achievement of peace following historic agreement between the two sectarian tribes appeared as the pinnacle of Hume’s work and long political career. Trimble, on the other hand, had not been so prominent for so long and when he did appear he did so as the next voice of unionist intransigence and supremacism.
His earliest notoriety came as a member of Bill Craig’s Vanguard movement, which is the closest unionism came in ‘the Troubles’ to becoming a mass fascist movement. He also played a role in the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 that brought down the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement and which succeeded not simply because of extensive unionist opposition, but crucially because of widespread paramilitary intimidation and the complete failure of the British state’s armed forces to challenge it.
He then came to prominence in 1995 when he walked arms aloft with Ian Paisley as they celebrated the disputed march of Orangemen through the Catholic Garvaghy Road in Portadown, in what was seen as another act of sectarian triumphalism. This was widely seen to break the deal brokered previously to avoid residents having their noses rubbed in it, something he denied. But given the prominence of the dispute at Drumcree over a number of years and the loyalist killings associated with it, it was viewed as a victory over the whole Catholic population.
This action however helped him win the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party shortly after, and his reputation for being hard-line was reinforced when he met the loyalist paramilitary killer from the Portadown area, Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright, during the Drumcree dispute the following year.
Thus, while Hume’s actions in giving birth to the Good Friday agreement appeared consistent with his prior political activity, Trimble’s role could only be presented as some sort of conversion, necessary to sell the Belfast Agreement as not some sort of unionist victory. As we can see from Arlene Foster’s remarks, this proved difficult.
Victory may come in many colours but plenty of unionists believe it can only come with red, white and blue ribbons. And this was Trimble’s problem, his achievement and his significance.
While it is claimed that the Good Friday Agreement was the creation of Hume and Adams it was built by the British. The role of Hume and Trimble was to modify it as they were able and sell it to their constituencies. That it is estimated well over 90 per cent of nationalists voted for it shows that this was not a difficult job for Hume. Not so for Trimble. Various numbers are quoted for the level of unionist support in the referendum that approved the deal, but the highest that looks reasonable is 57 per cent. And Trimble’s problems only started there.
His even more difficult fight was within his own party to defend the deal, with repeated confrontations taking place within the Party’s ruling Council involving those opposed to the Agreement who sought to get rid of him. At the meeting in May 2000 Trimble won only narrowly by 53 to 47 per cent. The Party split, a part led by Jeffrey Donaldson joining Paisley’s DUP, which quickly became the main unionist party. In effect, the majority of unionists now opposed the Good Friday Agreement; something studiously ignored by the media who don’t want to register this fact as the underlying reason for the repeated failure of the new Stormont to work as intended, even when it is sitting and not otherwise in suspension, as it is today.
Supporters of the Agreement, especially nationalists, must therefore acknowledge that they owe more to David Trimble than they might care to acknowledge, for given their enthusiasm for it his personality and previous history is secondary. The relative failure to celebrate his role is understandable since his sectarian constituency just about voted for the deal at the time and without the enthusiasm of Irish nationalists. But that is why his role was important in a way Hume’s was not. Since then, of course, their approval has fallen and the deal has been subject to changes unaccompanied by the initial hype.
The failure of his achievement in the Agreement to bring the stability anticipated could not be ignored in the obituaries but we have been told that while ‘it has many flaws’, compared to the alternative ‘it is infinitely preferable’ (John Manley, ‘The Irish News’). For ‘The Irish Times’ obituary writer ‘it is better than the alternative: another failed powersharing experiment and a possible return to violence . . .’
It is a moot point whether instability due to lack of a deal in 1998 is worse than instability as a result of its existence now: whether instability resulting from continued search for a deal is worse than that arising from the achievement of a deal that continually breaks down. From the start the absence of widespread political violence has been identified with the Good Friday Agreement by politicians and the media but the origins of the deal and the experience of its (non) operation show the two are not the same. That such identity is required is explained by the lack of any other merit to the sectarian arrangements put in place that repeatedly fail and fall over.
Trimble was a reactionary and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement he fought tenaciously for was no exception. Latterly he was a keen exponent of Brexit and opponent of the Northern Ireland Protocol. So much for the politics of stability.
‘The Irish Times’ obituary records that the standout line in his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech in Oslo included the remark that Northern Ireland had been ‘a cold house for Catholics’. This, however, is a euphemism for decades of discrimination and repression. The Agreement he fought for was designed only to make modest changes to what was considered a modest injustice. Turning the heating up was not a solution to a house that should be condemned.