RUTH DUDLEY EDWARDS pays tribute to a humble colossus of peace
Published: 26 July 2022
My long and close friendship with David Trimble began in 1985 at yet another conference lamenting the sorry state of Northern Ireland.
A friend and I decided to alleviate the boredom by having a party to which we would ask only the delegates who looked like fun. We were both convivial people who were from the nationalist tribe in the Republic.
I was settled in London and my friend Liam in Brussels — and David, the stony-faced, taciturn, Unionist law lecturer from Queen’s University Belfast who didn’t seem to know or want to know anyone, was definitely not on our list.
Just before the party started I saw him in a corridor and thought: ‘Oh, well, I’ll ask him as a gesture of goodwill. There’s no danger of him coming.’
But come he did. I felt responsible for him, sat with him, was surprised and relieved to find that though he was an Ulster Presbyterian and, indeed, an Orangeman — a group then beyond my comprehension — he was not teetotal.
He relaxed and we found things to talk about and drank some more, and I eventually told him: ‘You know your problem? You are permanently two pints under par.’ It was something we used to laugh about later.
It took time to get to know him well, but it was worth the effort: David was the most loyal of friends and I mourn his loss. ‘He was an unacknowledged giant, never properly credited for his role in bringing the UUP [Ulster Unionist Party] over the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement finishing line,’ a friend emailed me yesterday. ‘History will be very kind to him.’
And certainly the news stories and obituaries that have filled newspapers and the airwaves since his family announced his death, at the age of 77 following a short illness, have paid lavish tribute to David for his part in bringing to an end three decades of the Troubles and his subsequent role as First Minister in a power-sharing executive which included Sinn Fein.
The son of a civil servant, David was born on October 15, 1944, and when we met, he was head of the department of Property and Commercial Law at Queen’s where he had acquired a first class degree in law.
He was immensely clever and industrious and had been called to the bar, but he was never popular with the university establishment who underpromoted him.
His shyness, his often disconcerting honesty and his loathing of empty rhetoric and back-slapping badinage made him hard for many to like. People were also suspicious of him because, an Orangeman from the age of 17, early in the Troubles David had been in some fringe (hardline but anti-violence) Unionist groups.
Yet it was the rule of law that was always his lodestar. In 1975, as a member of the short-lived Constitutional Convention, he supported power-sharing between constitutional parties and in 1978 he joined the mainstream UUP.
His commitment to politics was deepened by the horror of paramilitary violence, which was then rife and seemed permanent. In 1983, he had been in the law faculty building when he heard gunfire: he ran outside and saw the body of his friend and colleague, Edgar Graham, a 29-year-old rising star of the UUP, who had been shot by the IRA.
When the news was announced over the tannoy, there was a vast roar of approval from Republicans in the students’ union.
David, who was physically as brave as he would prove to be morally, ignored warnings to keep his head down and his mouth shut or else he would be next in line for assassination.
He was profoundly opposed to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement which had been negotiated between the British and Irish governments without any consultation with Unionists and gave the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the running of Northern Ireland.
In 1990, shortly after he became MP for Upper Bann, I took him to lunch in a London club and we talked books and bigotry. That was when I began to realise how exceptionally well-read and cultivated he was.
With his wife Daphne, who would be his strength and stay throughout his extraordinary life, and their four children, holidays were spent in various European countries absorbing art, listening to music and working their way through their bags of books.
I found it deeply refreshing that, when I asked him if he was sectarian, he replied: ‘Yes, of course, to some extent: we all are in Northern Ireland.’ It set off a fascinating and honest discussion which would have been inconceivable with almost anyone on the nationalist side.
Trimble was in his element in Westminster. ‘I love this place,’ he said to me once, his voice almost shaking with emotion as he showed me the view from the roof. There was nothing parochial about him: he was a politician of the United Kingdom.
In his early days he called on the John Major government to support the Bosnian Muslims, then under attack from the Serbs, and was a vocal opponent of the Maastricht Treaty.
But then Northern Ireland came centre stage as the Nationalist politician John Hume — through his talks with Gerry Adams — brought IRA/Sinn Fein into negotiations with both governments.
We often coincided at conferences run by the British-Irish Association, and I was struck by how much sense David talked, yet how his forthrightness repelled English and Irish diplomats whose stock-in-trade was known as ‘creative ambiguity’. When in 1995 he was elected to the leadership of the UUP, I was sickened by the ignorant hostility his appointment attracted in some quarters.
The UUP had been becalmed for years: under Trimble they were straight into talks on a peace deal with the Irish and Americans as well as the British government. Nationalists were backed by the Irish government and Irish-America while Unionists not only had a government in Westminster committed to being impartial, but no support from Ian Paisley and his unionist party, the DUP, who were roaring about a sell-out from the start.
But there were some people from the Catholic tribe who recognised David for the great and honourable man he was and who rallied to his support.
They included an ex-terrorist called Sean O’Callaghan who had spent his life atoning for the murders and criminality of his teenage years with the IRA, who became David’s shrewd adviser on how to outwit the Republican leadership.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement achieved in 1998 would never have happened without David’s strength of character, his mastery of detail and his canniness in keeping all the disparate players, if not onside, then at least involved.
And he never ceased in those efforts. Indeed, when he was told that he and John Hume had won the Nobel Prize for Peace, his comment was, typically, that it was premature.
In part he was correct, for as Peter Mandelson said this week in his tribute to David Trimble, getting the Agreement implemented was almost worse than the negotiations that led to it. However, after a quarter-of-a-century, the Agreement is still standing and many people are alive today who would have been murdered without it.
In later life, as a Conservative peer, David shone in the House of Lords and was a fine contributor to constructive debate on domestic and international politics.
In his last days, he summoned up his failing strength to warn that if the Northern Ireland Protocol was left in its present form, the Agreement would die. I hope those now hailing him as a great man will try to rescue his extraordinary achievement and the people who depend on its success.