On Mount Nebo’s crest
The political life of David Trimble
Lord Trimble was a singular and, in many respects, a lonely figure, but it was the duality of much that he lived and dealt with that would shape his life.
He wanted to lead but proved incapable of building and maintaining followers — undermined by government, his supposed partners in peace and himself. Others would have to carry on what he began.
He started as a lower middle-class boy who did well, progressing to become a law professor. He was assiduous about the conventions of personal courtesy and had a compulsion to prove his breadth of knowledge.
His politics were shaped by the descent of Northern Ireland into near collapse through terrorism and sectarian violence and the cack-handed interventions of the UK government. Trimble aligned himself with William Craig’s Vanguard Party, a right-wing splinter from the Ulster Unionist Party. He played a role in the Ulster Workers Council Strike of 1974 that brought down the Sunningdale Executive. He would tell the story that he went to UWC headquarters on the first day and no one was answering the phones, so he did. He then stayed for the duration. Vanguard would ultimately fade away with many drifting back to the Ulster Unionist Party, Trimble amongst them.
The UUP in the 1980s was held together by a new uneasy peace created by James Molyneaux between integrationists and devolutionists. The devolutionists, shaped by the Stormont of 1921-72, sought some form of return to regional government and integrationists, influenced by Enoch Powell who sought stronger but limited local government and Westminster rule. Molyneaux’s truce was constructed by not saying or doing very much and effectively ignoring James Prior’s initiative of an administrative Assembly. This internal inertia received its external comeuppance with the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Trimble was as vehemently opposed to it as he had been Sunningdale and threw himself wholeheartedly into the campaign against it. The early death of UUP Deputy Leader Harold McCusker gave Trimble his route to elected politics. He won the 1990 Upper Bann by-election and the opportunity to show his abilities in Westminster.
As he found his feet in London, what would be called the peace process was beginning. Some of it took place in public, much of it in secret — this duality representing a tension the process continues to be fraught with. Was this about reconciling the politics and communities of Ulster or was it dirty dealing with the Provos?
The PIRA was in long-term trouble
The PIRA was in long-term trouble. Senior IRA terrorist Brendan Hughes described it as “a vice” that each year the security services were able to turn a little tighter. Each year limited the PIRA’s ability to operate. The wiser of its leadership could foresee its slow death. This mood was articulated by their intermediary’s message to government: “The war is over we need your help to end it”.
The United Kingdom government faced the choice to persist with a successful but long-term strategy or do a deal to end it sooner. They chose to deal. The public elements of this dance were detailed in the British-Irish proposals of the Downing Street Declaration and then the Framework Documents. The scale of the offer to nationalism was a demonstration of over-indulgence that would persist.
In the aftermath of the Framework Documents, Molyneaux finally resigned following a disastrous by-election result. After the Downing Street Declaration, he had assured internal critics that he had the ear of Major but he didn’t. This was neither the first instance of a Conservative Prime Minister pretending to listen to Unionists nor the last.
In a leadership race with fiver riders, Trimble had a core support of former Vanguard members in the UUP, with the most professional campaign of them all and best speech on the night. He earned a victory assisted by the favourite, John Taylor, fumbling it.
UUP members wanted intelligent, capable and firm leadership. The belief in Trimble’s firmness stemmed from his political history and the Drumcree dispute but it was in part an illusion. Circumstances meant the situation hadn’t reached a breaking point, not that he didn’t have one. Trimble was cast iron not steel. His strength was brittle not ductile. He would break not bend under pressure.
The backdrop to his leadership was a great deal of internal debate summed up in the term, New Unionism. In 1987, during the opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, senior Unionists had produced a Task Force report that critically summed up unionism’s approach as “steady as she drifts”. In 1995 all their criticisms were still true.
The post AIA generation wanted to modernise the party, its messages and its proactivity. However, the weaker saw it as a convenient branding for a roll-over. At the beginning, his thinking was closest to the modernisers who he sought to promote, but decisions would ultimately leave him surrounded by the weak.
The government desire to deal, the failure to defeat the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the need for Unionism to be proactive meant that Trimble’s conclusion that a deal had to be made was a fair and legitimate assessment. A common London criticism of the DUP is that it is all tactics and no strategy. The reverse could be said of Trimble. He had his big idea but neither a proper delivery plan nor the team to achieve it.
It lacked much of what it needed
In the negotiations, his approach was shaped by Sunningdale. It was the Council of Ireland that had broken it with Unionist opinion. He knew what shouldn’t be in it and secured it. This focus on past problems perhaps distracted from future ones. It lacked much of what it needed. Poor or absent answers on paramilitarism, policing, the past, power-sharing and cultural identity, individually and collectively dogged implementation.
Too often, Trimble was the academic who believed that once the intellectual case had been won consequences naturally followed, and the lawyer who saw text as establishing precedent with a singular answer. Deals in Northern Ireland are negotiated before, during and after the deal. It was in the after that Sinn Fein excelled.
The nature of the Belfast Agreement suited this Sinn Fein strength. There are two types of peace agreement — instrumental and constitutive. Instrumental or partial deals resolve a number of issues with the expectation the progress and momentum they start will help resolve others. A constitutive deal is a “full” agreement. The former easier to achieve but harder to implement — the latter harder to achieve but simpler to deliver.
Trimble considered the principle of consent his greater achievement, though this is deeply contestable. Yet he himself learned that the notional acceptance of the principle by nationalism was solely that. It does not extend to accepting that it has any practicable effect — whether simple everyday Britishness within Northern Ireland or accepting national referendum results.
His decision to make the deal faced opposition from traditionalists and modernisers. Traditionalists didn’t like the idea of any deal while modernisers disagreed with the deal he had made. Trimble treated them as one and the same, limiting his future options and impairing his ability to construct an effective team.
He was clearly uncomfortable with the vapid “Yes’ referendum campaign. It looked likely that the unofficial test of a majority of both communities would not be met with Unionists rejecting it. A tactic to overcome this was the misselling of the Belfast Agreement to Unionists as a full not partial deal. A settlement not a process — just one bitter pill to be swallowed for peace.
Following worrying private polling, Blair swooped in with 48 hours to go to save the floundering campaign. He announced his five handwritten pledges all centred on floating Unionist voter concerns. It worked. The Unionist pendulum swung 55 v 45 in favour, but it only worked in the short-term. Blair’s pledges evaporated. One bitter pill followed another. Unionist swing voters would feel ever more conned. “This isn’t what I voted for” was the common refrain.
As an Executive formed and decisions began to be made it became clear the departmental structures owed more to departmental fiefdoms than power-sharing, with an attack on grammar schools a red rag to the aspirational Unionist bull. The UUP had made many sacrifices to regain devolution but not what to do with it. These made the charge of “in government but not in power” straightforward. .
Sinn Fein reveled in its Janus status — enjoying the public pretence of being a normal political party while being anything but. They took full advantage of the weak decommissioning terms of the agreement to avoid handing over weapons while their paramilitary wing used them to murder and rob. They may have smiled at the Executive table, but they kicked Unionism underneath it through street agitation on parades.
The SDLP made vague offers to help but always at some ill-defined future point.
From the UK government, Trimble got the Patten report and the de facto abolition of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. This was the gateway for anti-agreement Unionism into middle Ulster. On top he had the official acceptance of “housekeeping” murders and other criminality by the terrorist groupings. Attempts to patch and mend devolution saw him disproportionately pressured to be lowballed. Hunger to prove that he had made the right call led him to lose sight of the politically possible — breaking under it all for much less than his public demands.
The NIO is always happy to push Unionist leaders to breaking point and beyond, as best demonstrated by the collapsed deal of 2003. Prior to the delayed 2003 Assembly, elections agreement on decommissioning some PIRA weapons had been reached. This was to provide a positive backdrop for the UUP and keep it ahead of a surging DUP. Instead, republicanism delivered such a non-event that Trimble had to walk away from it. The promised lifeline became a real-life humiliation. The DUP became the largest party and received a mandate from Unionists to renegotiate.
Trimble’s response closed any chance of a speedy comeback. He blamed defeat on the remaining senior modernisers Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster. This hastened their exit to the DUP and affirmed its position as the main voice of Unionism. He couldn’t accept that the DUP and Paisley were capable of change. The modernising project he believed he embodied had become the property of others.
Trimble could be characterised as a Unionist Moses — the leader to take Unionism “out of Egypt” — but his errors would keep him from the promised land. The double dealing of London and Sinn Fein leaving him stuck on Mount Nebo. The DUP, and in particular Robinson, proving to be the political Joshua — though making devolution work in Northern Ireland is far from m milk and honey.
As tales of the Agreement were told, Trimble’s comparable role to Hume faded, with the lauding of Hume verging on beatification. He had always been more in the process than of it. A life-long Eurosceptic, his support for Leave and opposition to the Protocol were unsurprising — but neither fitted the narrative or the fallacies of the process in-crowd, enhancing their selective memories.
For a man whose story involved so much internal Unionist wrangling, it is noteworthy that his final fight was shoulder to shoulder with fellow Unionists against the Protocol. Past family disputes were overcome to face a new threat to the family. Today, as so many now speak of his courage and statesmanship will they answer Trimble’s final calls on the Protocol, or will they return to their selective memory tomorrow?
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