‘I never doubted that David Trimble fundamentally believed in the Union’, says Dame Arlene Foster

Committed to the Union, David Trimble was known among his unionist colleagues as an intellectual giant, a man across the detail, but also someone who could be sharp with anyone who crossed him.

ormer First Minister, Arlene (now Dame) Foster started her political career in the Ulster Unionists, before defecting to the DUP over aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.

She said history “will be kind” to the man who led Ulster Unionism to the negotiating table.

“I was at an event at Queen’s when they honoured him at the end of June. I’m shocked to hear of his passing so soon after that,” she said.

“David was an intellectual unionist, he wasn’t one who came up through the ranks in the normal way, he came from an intellectual point of view. That was his strength and, in a way, his weakness.

“It is a matter of record I left the Ulster Unionist Party and that we disagreed, particularly around the Belfast Agreement, but I never doubted he fundamentally believed in the Union as did I.

“I was pleased I had an opportunity to have a conversation with him in June.

“I think David understood why I couldn’t support the Agreement, particularly around victims and the release of prisoners — but I never doubted the fundamentals of the Agreement in terms of the constitution.

“I think history will be kind to David because he got the constitutional issue right in the Belfast Agreement because the status of Northern Ireland does not change until the people of Northern Ireland say otherwise. He got the big picture right.”

Politically active until the end, more recently Lord Trimble was involved in the campaign against the NI Protocol and named in a High Court challenge to the ‘Irish Sea border’, which he believed damaged the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

“He was an applicant along with myself, Kate Hoey, Jim Allister and Ben Habib against the government in a case which continues,” said Dame Arlene.

“So, his legacy will always be the defence of the union, right up until he passed away.”

Jonathan Caine, now Lord Caine, has served as a special advisor to six Conservative Secretaries of State, and there are few who know more about the backroom negotiations in the early days of the peace agreement.

The early talks and paramilitary ceasefires had occurred under John Major’s government, and when the Tories lost the May 1997 general election to a Labour landslide, Tony Blair took over and got the agreement over the line.

Lord Caine first met David Trimble in 1989 at a Friends of the Union event in east Belfast.

He said it was “regrettable” how the Blair administration treated the UUP leader.

“I am saddened by the news of his death,” said Lord Caine.

“His legacy ought to be huge, he was instrumental in bringing about that deal in 1998, a deal that was a landmark in the history of Northern Ireland. 

“That should never be underestimated.

“It was David Trimble and John Hume who forged that 1998 agreement from which everything else has flowed.

“I often visit the States and it saddens me how Trimble and Hume, and specifically Trimble, have been written out of the history of the Agreement when he was so instrumental. It is for his unionist colleagues to ensure that his legacy is now properly remembered.”

Lord Trimble had a fearsome reputation — to be on the wrong side of his wrath was an uncomfortable place to be.

Lord Caine said: “He had a reputation as the ‘angry man’ of unionism and no one would deny he could be sharp, but he never came across as bitter in my dealings with him. Perhaps he was disappointed.

“It was regrettable, to put it mildly, how in 2003 he was abandoned by the Blair government, but I wouldn’t want to dwell on that.

“He was a sharp intellect, he was a staunch unionist, a committed unionist but when the time came, he realised there was a deal to be done to the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.

“He was able to lead unionism into an accommodation with nationalism, and for that he deserves enormous praise.

“As well as all that he was a good friend, a good colleague in the House of Lords and a man of great wisdom.

“He’s up there with Carson and Craig as well as the giants of Ulster Unionism.”

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