Last month, at the funeral service for David Trimble — a friend I greatly admired and loved, seeing his widow Daphne — steadfastly, through many terrible times, his strength and stay — sitting alone as her children briefly left her to carry their father’s coffin almost brought me, a non-cryer, to tears.
Published: 9 August 2022
In its reflection of David’s modesty and his rootedness in his family, his community, his religion and his unionism, the service itself had the same effect.
When I wasn’t standing up to sing hymns badly, I sat in the unpretentious Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church in Lambeg where he and his family worshipped, listening to affecting prayers led by Reverend Fiona Forbes, its minister, to the four Trimble children reading with strong voices from the Old and New Testaments, and to magnificent tributes from his old friend the Very Reverend Dr Charles McMullen and Lord (Dean) Godson, David’s biographer, who is head of the most successful think tank in London.
Those who chose to write David Trimble off as a bigot might usefully reflect on what Dr McMullen said in 2019, as he ceased to be Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, at a time of division in over single sex marriage: “In a rapidly changing and secularising Ireland, we need to speak the truth in love and not be perceived to be closing the door to those who would see our churches as a cold place when we know that not to be the case.”
They might also bear in mind that Lord Godson is a practising, orthodox Jew, and that David was revered in Israel for constant support in countering the demonisation of this beleaguered democracy.
How had I, a London-dwelling Dubliner atheist from a Catholic nationalist background who describes herself as a Judeo-Christian atheist come to be described in Godson’s eulogy as “David’s greatest defender”.
When I met him first, in 1985, I was making my living as an historian of Britain and Ireland and was on the committee of the British-Irish Association, which organised annual conferences.
I had both Irish and British friends among the diplomats who were negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement, was on friendly terms with many sociable nationalists and had met few unionists.
I was a constitutional agnostic.
Whatever the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland wanted was good enough for me.
However, I deplored any attempts to intimidate unionists into a United Ireland and was horrified that the agreement had been negotiated behind their backs.
Becoming a journalist in 1994 exposed me to the reality of terror, suicidal unionist disunity and nationalist complacency.
And I came to know David Trimble better.
Despite the social awkwardness and bluntness that made him anathema to the politicians, diplomats, commentators and what are known as ‘opinion-formers’ in Anglo-Irish circles, I had come to like and respect him for his courage, honesty, intelligence, open-mindedness and self-deprecating wit.
An old friend who was at the British-Irish Association in 1995 the night his election as UUP leader was announced sent me an email last week describing the “despairing atmosphere which lasted through to the plenary session on the Sunday morning. As I remember it, you were the only one to see anything positive about DT himself or his election. I was deeply sceptical of your positivity, as was everyone else. And of course you were right and we were wrong”.
It was a lonely moment, but I tend to be on the side of the underdog, and the sheer bigotry, venom and ignorance of his critics determined me to do what I could to set the record straight.
Eventually, along with a few other Irish friends like Eoghan Harris and Kevin Myers who also recognised the greatness in him, I became a vocal supporter of the Trimble vision of Northern Ireland, a public enemy of violent republicanism, and a pariah in my homeland.
David Kerr, with whom I reminisced going to and from the rainy, dignified, low-key funeral, was his special advisor and press secretary for six years. He wrote last week about the extraordinary obstacles his leader faced. “He had to deal with an Irish government constantly seeking to capitalise on any opportunities for territorial mission creep in negotiations. They’re still doing it today.
“He had a fifth column of civil servants and advisors in the UK government, who were shamefully more worried about keeping bombs out of London than protecting the democratic integrity of the political process in Northern Ireland.
“And lastly but not least, he had to watch his back daily from attacks by other unionist parties seeking to exploit any weakness or division in the UUP, not for the good of the country, but for their own selfish political objectives.”
He is in death, said Lord Godson, “finally being accorded the respect and love from all polities and communities in these islands; the respect and love in death which he deserves – but which he did not always receive in life when he was at the height of his powers – and operating, as he so very often did, in most adverse circumstances”.
Could those who now hail him for his courage and foresight sort out the wretched protocol that he died fearing could sink the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.