David Trimble was wearing the sash and was talking about rights when I first met him. It was during marching season in Drumcree, and the Orangemen insisted on walking what they put the Queen’s Highway, including crossing the nationalist Garvaghy Road.
It was a scorching hot July day in 1997 and locals were herded into their homes by riot police. Some local residents had managed to reach Garvaghy Road for a sit-in protest against the parade but were forcibly removed. Meanwhile, security forces were en route, Orangers had gathered by the thousands, loyalist paramilitaries were stoking tensions, and the stage was set for a confrontation.
But first came church attendance. Curiously, this controversial parade – which was always scheduled for the Sunday before the twelfth – involved marching from central Portadown to Drumcree Parish Church on the outskirts, attending a service and then marching back to the town of Co Armagh. That year I followed Trimble into church while most of the Orange Brothers lounged outside, smoking and chatting. Listening to God speak was the last thing on their mind.
As leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Trimble showed up in Drumcree for several years to support Orangeism.
Indeed, he came from behind to win the party leadership in 1995, an unexpected victory some believe was won through its association with a triumphant Drumcree march earlier in the year. Footage showed him beaming, hand in hand with Ian Paisley, arms raised in victory at the end of the parade.
But back to this Church of Ireland service. Trimble sat in front with the melon brigade. I stood to one side as unobtrusively as possible, curious to hear how the minister would try to square the circle of a parade that in the minds of many is intrinsically linked to riots, sectarian murder, widespread use of plastic bullets and Loyalist leadership Volunteer Force is joined by Billy “King Rat” Wright.
Halfway there, Trimble got up to do the collection and made his way over to me—clearly a journalist, since I had a notebook with me, and definitely not a member of the Orange Order. He shook the plate under my nose, either out of mischief or because he thought it was funny, and we had a brief pause staring at each other.
I considered rattling a handful of Irish coins to see how he liked it, since all Southern things were tainted with evil, but I kept quiet and he gave up and went to others in the congregation. I don’t suppose he meant it badly, but I felt left out – and not in a good way.
After that, I joined the throng of reporters surrounding Trimble and listened to the same old stories about resisting attacks on their traditions. Rights were invoked as a balancing act with no sense for them.
I was later scolded for my red hair, which some band members felt was unacceptably Irish, and I borrowed a baseball cap to cover it up. Maybe you could call it banter, but it was a tense interlude.
The following year, Trimble signed the Good Friday Agreement and Power-Sharing Agreement, despite earlier rejection of the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, which proposed power-sharing. Subtleties and anomalies were embedded in his career.
Other contradictions included his dissenting voice when announcing the Bloody Sunday Inquiry: he insisted that the basic facts were already known and not in dispute, despite the tribunal’s findings showing otherwise. As Martin Kettle put it Guardian, he got many things wrong but got one big thing right. And that’s a fair analysis.
He didn’t get the credit he deserved in the union movement for skillfully playing a weakening hand. Consider what he gained from the Good Friday Agreement: the Irish government dropped its constitutional claim to the North, the IRA was decommissioned and the entity has been taken off the table for the foreseeable future – although Brexit changes that.
I met him several times and noticed that he always considered his answers to questions carefully, liked to be precise and was clearly smart – but he could also be smart because he was sensitive.
Trimble had one annus mirabilis 1998 – Good Friday Agreement signed, appointed First Minister at Stormont and shared Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume. However, only seven years later he lost his seat in Upper Bann to the DUP and resigned as chairman of the UUP. His party was decimated by the adjustments he made to nationalism or by reality.
Politics still ran through his blood and in 2006 he was appointed Life Peer to the House of Lords. The following year he joined the Conservative Party to exert greater influence in British politics – which brings us to Brexit, one of the things he got wrong. And the stupidity of a smart person is somehow more annoying.
Just before Boris Johnson came into office I was on a BBC radio show with Trimble and was surprised – despite being a leaver – to hear his scathing criticism of the Irish government for its opposition to a hard border. He insisted it undermined the Good Friday Agreement and risked a resumption of violence by provoking loyalists.
It was downright odd to hear him suggest that every government should base its policy decisions on the threat of violence from a tiny bunch of paramilitaries. And wouldn’t a hard border rather than a sea border be the ultimate betrayal of the agreement?
His interventions, on this and other occasions, do not go well with his – well deserved, it must be stressed – reputation for negotiating power-sharing.
One lesson we can learn from Trimble’s career, however, is that political progress is possible whenever people are willing to compromise and make sacrifices.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/david-trimble-deserves-praise-as-a-peacemaker-but-he-made-a-serious-mistake-with-brexit-41875325.html David Trimble deserves praise as a peacemaker, but he made a grave mistake with Brexit