Why Trimble Matters


David Trimble (1944 – 2022)

An Appreciation

“though he had journeyed a thousand political miles, on that Friday morning in April 1998, while a half inch remained to bring his party to the final peace agreement, the difference between reaching agreement and no agreement was night and day”

He has been described variously by friends and foes alike in many ways over recent days, yet David Trimble should be remembered for his courage, commitment and consequence to his community, to Northern Ireland, and to the islands of Ireland and Great Britain.

William David Trimble was born in Belfast in 1944 and grew up in Bangor Co Down, the son of Presbyterians. Following his early education, he studied law at Queens University, achieving a first-class honours. He began his career lecturing at Queens during the early 1970’s as the Troubles were taking hold across Northern Ireland. This period in Northern Ireland’s history would prove seminal in the thinking of David Trimble and ultimately lead him to join the Vanguard Unionist Party led by William Craig.

In early 1972, in an ever-deteriorating security situation, British Prime Minister Edward Heath sought to return security responsibility to London following the killing of 13 civilians in Derry. Northern Ireland Premier Brian Faulkner refused to accept these terms and Stormont was prorogued, leaving many unionists, including David Trimble, feeling betrayed. New Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, assumed responsibility for the political and security direction in Northern Ireland. In 1973, following months of discussion with all parties, Whitelaw called an election to a new Northern Ireland Assembly to replace the old Stormont Parliament. While 29-year-old David Trimble unsuccessfully contested the election as a Vanguard Unionist candidate, the result led the British Government to conclude that there was sufficient support to proceed with the power-sharing experiment.

This ultimately led to the negotiation of an agreement between the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance Party on a new model of power-sharing for Northern Ireland. However, a significant number of unionists and loyalist organisations opposed the idea of a mandatory coalition. Worse was to come for unionists when in December 1973, tripartite talks between London, Dublin and the leaders of the New Executive agreed to the revival of a Council of Ireland linking Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for the first time in 50 years. Trimble and others in the Vanguard were not prepared to agree to an imposed set of arrangements and set out to bring these down. With the support of anti-Sunningdale unionists, a general strike led to the collapse of the Executive and the Sunningdale Agreement with authority returning to Westminster. Trimble acted as a legal adviser to the strike organisers and remained close to the Vanguard leadership throughout the period.

In the 1975 election for a new Constitutional Convention, David Trimble was successful, and we saw the first indications of how pragmatic he could be. Realising that this was a divided society and that there were members of the other communities who would, and could, play a positive role in the governance of Northern Ireland, he began to think in terms of a voluntary coalition – agreed and not imposed. Though the Convention was inconclusive and broke up without agreement, Trimble came out of the experience differently. In 1978 he joined the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) under Harry West, who, like himself, opposed Sunningdale.

Throughout the remainder of the 1970s and the 1980s, alongside his political work, Trimble continued his role at Queen’s, lecturing and teaching while raising his family with his wife, Daphne. A notable and shocking event in this period was the on-campus shooting dead by the IRA of his friend and colleague, Edgar Graham. Despite the threats associated with political life, Trimble remained active in the UUP,  holding several offices and positions.

Following the untimely death of Westminister MP Harold McCusker in 1990, David Trimble successfully contested the Westminster seat of Upper Bann, with an almost 60% share of the votes. He entered parliament at yet another pivotal and uncertain period in the long history of the Troubles. Alongside indications that the IRA were giving serious consideration to ending the armed struggle and entering negotiations on a new set of arrangements for Northern Ireland and the whole island, some of the worst atrocities were taking place. Then came the sudden announcement of an IRA ceasefire in August 1994, which was followed quickly by a loyalist cessation in October.

The following summer, the RUC halted an Orange Order parade from proceeding through the nationalist area of the town of Portadown. Thousands of Orangemen from across Northern Ireland came to Portadown – a town of deep historical significance to unionists – in solidarity with their local brethren. The scenes witnessed that week were illustrative of a very uneasy feeling within unionism on the outcome of the ceasefire and of potentially being sold out by the British Government.

This was a pivotal moment for Trimble who – until then relatively unnoticed, particularly in the southern consciousness – emerged as an alternative voice to the booming and foreboding Rev Ian Paisley. When a compromise was reached in Portadown, Trimble and Paisley walked through the town in what many described as a gratuitous and triumphalist display. Yet for Trimble, who was determined to be at the top table in shaping the future of Northern Ireland, he was signalling to a fearful and uncertain unionist community that he knew and felt their fears, and would bring this understanding to bear in future negotiations.

In effect, Trimble was embarking on a strategy not unlike that of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness on their road to assuming the leadership of the republican movement. And it worked. Unionists’ confidence in Trimble led to his victory in the Ulster Unionist leadership contest following the resignation of long-standing leader James Molyneaux’s in summer 1995. This included his surprise defeat of unionist stalwart John Taylor and three other candidates.

When the IRA ceasefire broke down in February 1996, many considered this an active strategy by the republicans to use violence when political progress proved too slow for more militant voices inside the movement. Others suspected it was the result of internal pressure on Adams and McGuinness to deliver tangible results from the British Government despite the belief of a significant majority that politics and negotiations were a genuine alternative to violence.

In response, Trimble took at nuanced and strategic approach aimed at getting the maximum number of republican activists behind their leadership and into a path-dependent process where any return to violence would be unthinkable. This was reflected in the eulogy to Trimble by friend and biographer Lord Dean Godson who revealed how carefully he considered his words in public knowing the effect they might have on the credibility of Adams and McGuinness inside their movement. Trimble continued this approach up to September 1997 even as his own community seriously questioned the commitment of the republican movement to the peace process.

In July 1997, the IRA reinstated the ceasefire and all parties signed the Mitchell Principles committing to non-violence. Though Sinn Fein were allowed entry into negotiations, the DUP refused to sit and negotiate with them on the future of Northern Ireland. In what was to be another dramatic decision by Trimble, he led his party and other elements of loyalism into Stormont to resume multi-party talks that would begin the final phase of negotiations on an agreement. Yet with substantive talks underway, Trimble came under pressure at his party conference that year for his decision to enter discussions with Sinn Fein. He answered his critics by saying that he would not accept trojan horses that might trundle unionists into a united Ireland. This criticism within the UUP would continue to bite at his heels throughout the remainder of his term as leader.

Unionists were not the only party suffering defections. In November 1997, several Sinn Fein and IRA members resigned over the party’s decision to sign the Mitchell Principles. Trimble was very aware of the fragility, and potential fate (mindful of those who had gone before), of the republican leadership in bringing their supporters to compromise, and how a change in this leadership could end, or seriously hamper, the peace process.

In the months to March 1998, a spate of sectarian killings ensued. Parties were suspended from the talks and then permitted to re-join after a period of exclusion. When George Mitchell declared he would leave the negotiations and return to the US in April, talks resumed with a renewed vigour and intensity given this deadline.

As the days ticked down, Trimble tried to corral and encourage his party colleagues and negotiators towards the prize of peace and securing the union by consent – a principle he had long sought to have accepted by both Sinn Fein and the Government in Dublin. Among the difficulties he encountered was an early April proposal by the Irish and British governments for a north-south arrangement under Strand Two. This seriously threatened the chances of any agreement, and was only resolved when the scale and scope was reduced in discussions between Trimble, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and senior Irish officials. Recognising Trimble’s ever-decreasing room for manoeuvre, Ahern agreed to seek change to the Irish Constitutional claim as a right to the territory of Northern Ireland. This was a significant achievement by Trimble, who, on the one hand, had reduced what many unionists saw as southern encroachment on the sovereignty of Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom and, at the same time, won acceptance and recognition for the legitimacy and reality of Northern Ireland as part of the UK for as long as a majority wished it to remain so.

As the talks continued, step-by-step agreements were reached on a new Executive, paramilitary prisoner releases, flags and emblems, acknowledging victims, and the ongoing and vexed question of paramilitary weapons, particularly IRA weapons. By the morning of Good Friday, the final draft of the peace agreement was ready. As the governments and parties continued to raise and resolve questions and clarifications throughout the morning, it became apparent that the Ulster Unionists, and Trimble in particular, had difficulty on the issue of IRA weapons which would also see Sinn Fein take their seats in Government alongside other parties while holding onto weapons. Party members would not support an agreement that allowed the release of prisoners and a commitment to reform the RUC if paramilitaries remained armed and in government. They also had issue with the lack of a performance mechanism to force paramilitary disarmament.

Though he had journeyed a thousand political miles, on that Friday morning in April 1998, while a half inch remained to bring his party to the final peace agreement, the difference between reaching agreement and no agreement was night and day. Trimble turned to Tony Blair who agreed to issue a side letter alongside, but crucially not part of, the agreement as an enforcement mechanism to get the IRA to start decommissioning within two years. He now had to decide if this was enough to close the half an inch. The content of this letter would be the difference in keeping his party united behind him and securing majority support within the unionist community, in the knowledge the DUP meanwhile would highlight the weaknesses and deficiencies of the agreement.

Tony Blair’s letter arrived outlining a firm commitment to hold Sinn Fein to their obligation to start decommissioning within two years. On the basis it didn’t have equal legal weight to the other articles within the agreement, many, including Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster, wouldn’t support it and left the talks. At this point, surrounded by only a handful of his party officers, MP’s and peers, Trimble put his faith in the fair-mindedness and support of the unionist electorate for the gains he had secured for them and the limits of the compromises he had made on their behalf. He also took a calculated risk that those leaving the room would not join his detractors in the DUP.

With maximum pressure bearing down on him, at 16.46 on the afternoon of April 10th 1998, Trimble called Chairman of the Talks, George Mitchell, to say he was coming upstairs to sign the document that would become known as Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA). For this act alone, he should be remembered and regarded as a man of courage and consequence.

In the immediate aftermath of the GFA, Trimble led his party into Government with Sinn Fein and other parties prior to IRA decommissioning. His famous phrase that he had ‘jumped first and that it was now for Sinn Fein to follow’ lost him more support within his party. Nevertheless, he stayed the course. He went through unending negotiations that saw the institutions suspended and restored in the first five years after the agreement. He ultimately did achieve the first significant act of decommissioning that was internationally verified under the supervision of Canadian General John DeChastelain in October 2003.

At the assembly election later that month, the DUP replaced the UUP as the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. Those election results provided no pathway to the formation of a new executive, and the institutions remained suspended until 2007.

By then, David Trimble was unsuccessful in his effort to retain the seat he had held in Westminster for 15 years and he resigned as leader of the UUP in 2005. He played no further role in the negotiations that would see his opponents inside unionism assume the office and authority he created through his decision in April 1998. He was subsequently elevated to the House of Lords and travelled internationally speaking about his experiences in peacebuilding and negotiations.

Whether unionist or nationalist, loyalist or republican, southerner or northerner, British or Irish or both, David Trimble deserves our remembrance and tribute for his courage, his conviction, and his commitment to building peace and ending violence on the island of Ireland.


26/7/22: Glencree Community & Political Dialogue Manager, Pat Hynes, spoke to Declan Meehan of East Coast FM of David Trimbles life in politics particularly around the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in which he remembers ‘a man of courage, conviction to his principles and ideas, and a man of consequence in terms of the legacy he left across the island of Ireland and the relationship between the two parts of the island’.