The significance of David Trimble

Trimble and Paisly at Drumcree (Belfastlive.co.uk)

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. 

Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement 1

The British parliament has voted for a no deal Brexit through the Tory demand that the backstop, that would prevent a hard border inside Ireland, should be removed.  Theresa May has gone to Europe (again) and been told the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened for negotiation.  Her humiliation (again) was partially avoided by attention switching to Donald Tusk’s remark about a special place in hell for those who led Brexit without a plan.

Theresa May continues to kick the can down the road in an attempt to blackmail MPs into supporting her deal as the only way to avoid a no deal exit.  The alternative is an extension of Article 50 to postpone the dreaded decision.

But lo and behold, here then comes Jeremy Corbyn to overturn his demand that the Withdrawal Agreement pass his six tests and instead he demands five tests from the Political Declaration. Since this declaration has no legal force it is purely a political document, which doesn’t make it unimportant but does mean it can contain all sorts of pious wishes and contradictory or impossible elements that could in large part contain what Corbyn has said he wants.  Less charitably it’s not binding and not worth the paper it’s written on.

This may have three effects. It gets May’s deal over the line and we have Brexit.  It makes the Tory deal the basis of this Brexit and it makes them responsible for whatever ensues – as in British business continuing to shift to the rest of Europe that remains part of the EU.  A fourth effect is that Corbyn is seen to be consistent in his demand for a ‘jobs’ Brexit while also sticking to Labour Party policy.

Of course, only one of these is true – the most important one – that Brexit happens.  Corbyn having facilitated Brexit will also own it, and will not be seen to have put into effect what the majority of Labour members thought they were getting from the party’s conference resolution.

In one sense, in supporting the May deal, Corbyn can claim consistency, since both he and May have claimed benefits for Brexit that do not exist; and both have tried to ignore the wishes of the majority of the members of their respective parties.  Left supporters of Brexit claim that such a deal will split the Tories but they ignore the parallel process in the Labour Party.

To hide their complicity in this Tory project the left Brexiteers now regularly claim it doesn’t really matter because Brexit isn’t that important – we shouldn’t get that worked up about it, and really we shouldn’t take sides.  But if there’s one argument that really gets my goat it is this one – having voted for Brexit and a Tory initiative they are trying to cover their tracks.  Their argument is not only bogus but thoroughly dishonest.  Like the right-wing supporters of Brexit the project can only get by on lies, and it doesn’t matter who is telling them, for what purpose or with what motivation.

Corbyn is in the process of betraying the membership in a disregard for their views that equals that of Tony Blair, from whom he was supposed to be so different.  The only hope here is that May does not feel able to get her deal through her party with Labour support and/or the ranks of the Labour Party rise up to prevent the biggest betrayal yet, as they did with the leadership attempt to abstain on Tory immigration plans.

It is not therefore exluded that no deal will happen.

This has provoked the charge that the Tories are effectively tearing up the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This is sometimes followed by the forecast that this will lead to a vote for a united Ireland on the basis that the majority in the North of Ireland supported and continue to support remaining in the EU.

I don’t believe this to be true.

First, it’s debateable whether a no deal Brexit would amount to tearing up the Good Friday Agreement, either legally or in spirit.

If we take the legal position first, the UK Supreme Court in 2017 stated that the GFA ‘assumed’ but did not ‘require” UK membership of the EU.  Legal academics have claimed that the GFA requires citizens’ rights in the North, and human rights in particular, to be equivalent with the Irish State, but the GFA does not require the UK to be a member of EU’s human rights institutions or signed up to its standards. The GFA contains provisions for establishment of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights but that’s a dead letter as is the provision for a civic forum.  The North does not have women’s reproductive rights and nor is there the right to gay marriage, unlike the South, but no one is saying that the GFA is therefore dead.

The Common Travel Area will be put under strain by a hard Brexit as EU migrants freely entering through Dublin may be able to cross the border, if that border is ‘soft’, and then travel on to Britain with few checks if there is also no ‘border’ between the island of Ireland and Britain.

Since the main rationale for Brexit was control and reduction of immigration, and its introduction will embolden sundry reactionaries on this score, this will put pressure on to put a border somewhere.  The alternative would be a ‘hostile environment’ inside Britain (and also perhaps Northern Ireland) where daily transactions and activities are used in order to check people’s citizenship status, and we know that the Tories do hostile environments very well.

But these options too may not legally breach the GFA.  So what about its spirit?  Well, this very much depends on what you think the spirit of the GFA is and whether Brexit breaches it.  If you think it was a pacification process that is inherently sectarian then Brexit is hardly going to get you to complain that the GFA’s ‘spirit’ is threatened. What its spirit actually is has been demonstrated in practice, which means you have to ignore the unthinking rhetoric of the great and the good and look at how it has actually worked.

The Agreement has already been mangled and its centrepiece, the Stormont Assembly, has been suspended five times and has currently been suspended for over two years. Other parts of the Agreement, such as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, hardly exist. Much of the waffle composed of promises relating to good faith, non-discrimination, equality, propriety and accountability with public funds, transparency etc. are thoroughly discredited by the reality of an incompetent, corrupt and sectarian Stormont administration.

The DUP never supported the GFA, so it can be no surprise it isn’t working.  Sinn Fein clung on to Stormont up to its most recent suspension until it became clear its voters would no longer tolerate the humiliation involved. They then rejected the party’s idea of a new deal.  The GFA isn’t working so it’s debateable that Brexit preventing it working makes any practical difference.

It has been pointed out that the EU had little to do with the creation of the Agreement and that, for example, the US had a more significant input.  The Agreement itself does not rely on it and the EU is not a party to it.

The letter of the Agreement states that the British and Irish Governments wish “to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.” There is much about cross-border cooperation on a number of fronts, including agriculture, tourism and health etc. that will all be undermined by a no deal Brexit, but there is nothing that legally invalidates it.

The view that this will lead to a return to political violence rests partly on the lie, repeated endlessly, that the GFA led to the end of political violence, when the truth is that it was the other way round – the ceasefires preceded the political deal and the armed forces that ended the political violence, through the use of much more effective violence, are still present.

So the first part of the argument would appear not to hold; although it is not quite that simple.

to be continued