In Ulster politics little is agreed and much is disputed and that extends to our perception of history; thus we tend to over celebrate the figures we support, occasionally spicing the dish with a few less than charitable observations about opponents. That being the case the reader might expect this former Progressive Unionist Party activist to join the ranks of the native born DUPers (Sammy Wilson, Nigel Dodds etc) and the born again DUPers (Arlene Foster, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson etc who jumped from the UUP to the DUP in 2004) and get the boot into David Trimble. If you expected I would do the same, you’re about to be mighty disappointed.
Two decades have passed since the Good Friday Agreement and time delivers experience and with it a measure of maturity; both of which enable a more balanced and less emotional view of history. These days, as rudderless Unionism drifts aimlessly into an ill-defined future this writer increasingly finds himself reflecting on the Trimble years; the conclusions of which motivate me to take to the keyboard in defence of his legacy.
In advance of that though, there is a group of people who deserve special mention; they are the Ulster Unionist Party members who stood by David Trimble.
Stormont’s infancy (1998-2001) was torrid and the UUP members who stood by their man bought the peace process the time it needed to ensure the unsavoury bits of the Good Friday Agreement were initiated. The taste was bitter and none enjoyed digesting the sharing of power, the reform of policing or the release of paramilitary prisoners and we should never doubt that each and every one of Trimble’s backers had personal and individual reasons to loathe every aspect of those reforms, yet they chose to stay and we all benefit from that today. Had they not chosen to stay would the peace have survived a political collapse? In this writer’s opinion the answer to that question is probably not and thus assured in my conviction that they will be respected by history, I applaud Trimble’s backers.
It is said that history is written by the victors, but it would be more accurate to say that it is written about them. The dominant narrative in Unionism’s recent story has been a DUP one and their triumph has been absolute. After 2001 the ‘No’ camp marched into elected office and the ‘Yes’ faction trudged back to work. And it remains so today.
In 1998 the ‘Yes’ faction within Unionism was a myriad of unconnected and not connectable Unionists whose principle voice was the Member of Parliament for Upper Bann, David Trimble.
As UUP leader Trimble led a party divided to its core by both the peace process and the agreements emerging from it always remember the born again DUPers did not leave until 2004 by which time they’d kicked the life out of Trimble and the UUP and as if that were not enough throughout his tenure he had to balance the expectations of Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians and academics with the reality of Dr Paisley who traversed the country telling voters that Trimble was a traitorously terrible chap who wanted to sell out Ulster.
In truth Trimble is only equalled by Lord Craigavon as a leader of Unionism in Ulster. Craigavon was our first elected Prime Minister and he earns his place as one of our two greatest leaders because like Trimble in the face of calls for change, he secured our ability to decide our own future. Craigavon did it when he oversaw the creation of Northern Ireland and Trimble did it by securing the Good Friday Agreement. I will stay focused on Trimble.
When he ascended to the leadership of the UUP in 1995 Trimble was challenged by an emerging coalition for change. Unionism had always faced factions agitating for change but never had such a coalition been assembled; there was the UK, Republic of Ireland and US governments, willingly assisted by the EU and just about every NGO type imaginable; not to mention the Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein. All supported the peace process and were in broad agreement as to how it should be progressed.
In 1995 the question was not would Unionism respond? It was could Unionism respond? Change was coming and the very future of Unionism in Ulster depended on Trimble’s steady hand.
At that time my naivety at the depth of UUP division was reflected in my frustration at what I believed to be Trimble’s lack of vision and commitment. On reflection I was wrong and what was needed was what we got, someone who would push back against the coalition for change whilst enabling progress at a pace with which most Unionists could live. As the right person at the right time Trimble negotiated with opponents and persuaded supporters at a pedestrian pace enduring an endless torrent of internal and external abuse and criticism throughout, but he was successful and every time he got us over the line. He faced down his internal critics and negotiated an agreement, he beat the ‘No’ camp and won the referendum debate and when many were giving up on him he secured Stormont’s infancy by winning a pro-agreement administration from 1998-2001.
We should note that whilst they reformed it the DUP never dismantled the Good Friday Agreement, mainly because it was a much sweeter dish when power sharing, the reform of policing and the release of paramilitary prisoners had already been digested by Trimble. Only a man of his time would have understood the importance and had the stomach to consume such a dish; it had to be done and he did it.
As if securing the Unionist population’s ability to decide its own future was not enough Trimble, just like Craigavon changed the Unionist conversation. In 1919 and 1995 Unionists prioritised opposition over innovation and thus they were well versed in what they would never do; yet within a few short years they were talking about all sorts of new things.
In Craigavon’s case it involved building Stormont and securing a government that would serve the needs of the Unionist electorate and in Trimble’s it required an acknowledgement of the problem and an agreement on a heating system that could bring warmth to every room in the house. Either way under both leaders, the Unionist worldview shifted significantly.
In conclusion I’ll make my final case for Trimble. As a young history teacher in the late 1980’s I was fortunate enough to go on a travel company freebie to the First World War battlefields in northern France and whilst there we got to question an old soldier. A question was posed that I well remember. A colleague asked ‘what type of officer’ had the old soldier ‘liked following’. His reply was ‘the one who stood first because even if he didn’t last long you knew he was heading in the right direction’.
Trimble like Craigavon ascended the leadership of Unionism when external pressures were strong and both had to respond. Craigavon’s efforts were rewarded with political longevity and Trimble’s were not. What Trimble did do though was affirm that old soldier’s words. He was among the first Unionists to stand for agreement and he certainly didn’t last long; but the court of history does not judge to those standards alone. That court takes a broader view and rightly gives greatest weight to the direction of travel and when viewed through that lens Trimble stands tall; most of what he agreed has just been re-agreed and most of that for which he stood still stands today, proving that way back then, David Trimble had us all ‘heading in the right direction’.