Sam McBride: Even David Trimble’s foes recognise he shaped the new Northern Ireland in which we live
David Trimble, the unionist leader whose thinking shaped Northern Irish life for a quarter of a century, is mourned by world leaders, colleagues and former enemies.
he key unionist negotiator of the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland’s first first minister died after a short illness.
Both those who worked for the former UUP leader and those who bitterly opposed him last night united in recognition of his stature and in expressing their condolences to his wife, Daphne, and their four children.
Lord Trimble operated under threat from his own community and faced hatred from a section of unionism which believed he compromised too much in his efforts to secure and sustain peace, especially after 1998 as the IRA stalled on decommissioning, continued to import guns and did not stop murdering.
However, as UUP leader he stood by the agreement for seven years, facing down his internal critics as well as external foes.
Eventually, he lost his Upper Bann seat to the DUP in 2005, but by then the agreement was embedded to the extent that the DUP accepted it with relatively minor alterations.
Lord Trimble’s death comes just two years after that of the agreement’s key nationalist architect, John Hume, and two and a half years after the death of the first SDLP deputy first minister, Seamus Mallon.
Former SDLP minister Sean Farren said on behalf of the John & Pat Hume Foundation that the defining image of the 1998 referendum had been Hume, Trimble and Bono together, something which “symbolised hope for the future and a new beginning for everyone”.
He added: “Along with Seamus Mallon, David Trimble was determined that we should demonstrate that political reconciliation could be achieved and that by working together [we could] make Northern Ireland and Ireland a better place for all.”
On losing his seat as an MP, the former Queen’s University law lecturer was elevated to the House of Lords and joined the Conservative Party, working with David Cameron in a failed attempt to bring mainstream British politics to Northern Ireland through a UUP-Tory alliance.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of the death of “a giant of British and international politics [who] will be long remembered for his intellect, personal bravery and fierce determination to change politics for the better”.
Sir Tony Blair, who was prime minister when the agreement was signed, described Lord Trimble’s contribution to peace as “immense, unforgettable and frankly irreplaceable”, and said he “will be mourned by friends and foes alike”.
He added: “David Trimble, in his support of the peace process, showed politics at its very best.”
Former prime minister John Major said Lord Trimble “thoroughly merits an honourable place amongst peacemakers”, having been “an innovative advocate for a peaceful settlement”.
Taoiseach Micheal Martin, who was in the Irish cabinet in 1998, said that “all of us… witnessed his crucial and courageous role in the negotiations leading to the agreement and his leadership in building support in his party and his community for the agreement”.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said Lord Trimble was “tough”. He told RTE: “As a good negotiator, I think when he made the deal, when he settled something, he stuck by it. Subsequently he paid the price. I have great admiration for him.
“I think we had the one determination: that we would end violence in Northern Ireland.”
Lord Trimble’s former critics also praised his ability, even if they continue to disagree with what he did.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who was Lord Trimble’s most dangerous internal critic before defecting to the DUP, said he was “a committed and passionate advocate for the Union, at a time when doing so placed a considerable threat to his safety”.
Describing him as “a committed and passionate unionist who always wanted the best for Northern Ireland”, the Lagan Valley MP said: “Right until recent days, David continued to use his political skill and intellect, most recently in support of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
Dame Arlene Foster, another of Lord Trimble’s internal critics who defected to the DUP, said: “We didn’t always agree — that is a matter of record — but he and I both shared a passion for the Union, something we reflected on when we last met in June at QUB. His enduring desire to protect and promote the Union will be his legacy.”
TUV leader Jim Allister, the agreement’s most ferocious and consistent critic, last year joined Lord Trimble in a court action against the protocol. Mr Allister, who was taught by Lord Trimble in Queen’s law school and who studied alongside Lord Trimble’s wife, said: “In losing David, Daphne has suffered a great loss and Northern Ireland a foremost thinker within unionism.”
Richard Bullick, the key DUP adviser to Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley in much of the post-Agreement period where a growing body of unionists turned on Trimble, paid warn tribute to the former first minister, describing him as “one of the most consequential unionists of the last 100 years”.
The key strategic backroom figure of the modern DUP added: “Even those of us who opposed the Belfast Agreement at the time have to accept that agreement has shaped politics for almost 25 years.”
Lord Trimble spoke about finding it easier to deal with Martin McGuinness than Gerry Adams. Last night, the surviving Sinn Fein negotiator said: “Our conversations were not always easy. but we made progress… I believe he was committed to making the peace process work.
“David’s contribution to the Good Friday Agreement and to the quarter-century of relative peace that followed cannot be underestimated”.
Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, said: “The peace process, and the Good Friday Agreement in particular, would not have happened without him. He could be a difficult and mercurial character, but he was the right man in the right place at the right time.”
Lord Trimble’s former press secretary, David Kerr, said: “His peacemaking and political legacy is immense. I believe history will be kind to him.”
David Lavery, Lord Trimble’s principal private secretary as first minister between 1998 and 2001, recalled the “great privilege” of serving in that role. The civil servant said: “He was unfailingly appreciative of the work of the civil servants who worked in his private office where we saw at first hand his great personal courage and above all his determination that there would be a peaceful future for all the people of Northern Ireland.”
Lord Empey, a senior UUP negotiator in 1998 and one of Lord Trimble’s strongest supporters, said: “He was brave and fearless in his conviction that the 1998 deal was not only in the best interests of Northern Ireland but also in the best interests of the United Kingdom as a whole.
“Bitterly attacked by opponents, time has shown that his judgement was right, as those critics have had to work within parameters that David established.
“I am in no doubt that many people are alive today who would have perished in our Troubles had Lord Trimble not had the courage of his convictions.”
Lord Trimble’s former chief of staff, David Campbell, said: “The passing of David Trimble marks the passing of a truly great ulster unionist leader in the mould of James Craig and Edward Carson. He was a true hero of our times and it was the privilege of my life to work for him.”
Former special adviser Mark Neale described his former boss as “a titan of unionism” who “had the vision and the foresight to see that unionism needed to make peace with those who opposed it”.
“Yet beyond the David Trimble the politician, there was also a man of great intellect, a great conversationalist but often a shy man. He faced his recent illness with his characteristic matter of fact approach. When we last met, he commented on his failing health as a fact and then chatted about the politics of the day, and the journey we had taken to be here,” he added.
In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1998, Lord Trimble reflected: “Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics. And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.
“None of us are entirely innocent. But thanks to our strong sense of civil society, thanks to our religious recognition that none of us are perfect, thanks to the thousands of people from both sides who made countless acts of good authority, thanks to a tradition of parliamentary democracy which meant that paramilitarism never displaced politics, thanks to all these specific, concrete circumstances we, thank God, stopped short of that abyss that engulfed Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and Rwanda.”
Referring to the Belfast Agreement, he told the Oslo audience: “That agreement showed that the people of Northern Ireland are no petty people.”
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