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Sunday 15 May 2005

Trimble is a man ahead of his time, and he was ahead of all of us

'Following David Trimble's resignation last Saturday," wrote Paul Hyland to the Irish Times last week, "I expected to find your letters page jam-packed with eulogies, or at the very least, sympathetic comment. I find the absence of comment very sad indeed." 

Although Hyland had prophesied doom when Trimble became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1995, he had, he explained, "grown to have the utmost respect for this man". Lauding Trimble's enormous courage in signing the Belfast Agreement, pushing the peace process forward and taking the risks that would prove electorally so devastating to him and his party, Hyland judged that in acting as the catalyst who fundamentally changed the outlook of Ulster unionists, Trimble made "a tremendous contribution to peace in this country". History, said Hyland, would in time recognise this. David Trimble

Like Paul Hyland, I too grew to have the utmost respect for David Trimble - though in my case this developed earlier: I've known him for 20 years. Also, as a friend of his, I have great affection for him personally. But Hyland and I are a tiny minority among Irish citizens, to most of whom Trimble is anathema, for as a culture we seem programmed to prefer style to substance. We love empty vessels like Bill Clinton, who tells us we are wonderful and that he wants to be Irish. We sure as hell can't stand straight-talking unionists who tell us they want to stay British. 

Forget a clown like Tim Pat Coogan, who compared Trimble winning a Nobel prize to Caligula's horse becoming a consul. What about the allegedly well-informed and sophisticated (eg Fionnuala O'Connor and David McKittrick) who can barely contain their loathing? Vincent Browne is typical of that tendency. In Wednesday's Irish Times, he delivered a familiar rant: Trimble failed to sell the Agreement to unionists, he wrongly focused on decommissioning rather than getting Sinn Fein on the policing board, he lacked courage and he didn't have the debating skills to dictate which issues were at the centre of the political agenda. 

Trimble did sell the Agreement to unionists. Unfortunately, after republicans ratted and robbed and killed and the two governments failed to punish them with more than the odd "tut, tut" unionists decided they'd been sold a pup. 

There's a valid argument that it might have been better to focus on paramilitary wickednesses rather than on decommissioning, but that's hindsight: the International Monitoring Commission was thought of rather late in the day. However the notion that Ulster Protestants would have rallied to the Agreement if Sinn Fein had become involved in running the police while the IRA remained intact and armed is from Planet Barking-Irish-Nationalist. 

As for the debating skills? Odd choice of word there, Vincent. Trimble is a fine enough debater to have been judged Parliamentarian of the Year by the Spectator. But it's true that he was unable to dictate the agenda of the peace process - possibly because he lacked the persuasiveness of a private army with a track record of bombing London. 

Trimble is much admired in Britain, where strangers stop him in the street daily to congratulate him on his courage and tenacity. His intelligence, imagination and daring are sufficiently remarkable to have inspired three biographies. 

He's unpopular in the Republic of Ireland mainly because a) he's an unapologetic unionist, b) he's shy, c) he lacks folksy charm and d) his honesty is mistaken for rudeness. Among those virtues nationalists ignore is his total absence of bigotry. North and South, our politicians occupy little party cocoons: Trimble's quirky collection of friends includes ex-members of the IRA (Official and Provisional). One of the oddest is the brilliant Dean Godson, an orthodox Jewish American neo-con who spent six years working on the monumental David Trimble, Himself Alone. It was typical of Trimble that he offered full co-operation to someone who didn't agree with him politically, mainly because he liked his mind and Godson made him laugh and that although the biography was heavily critical in parts, he holds no grudge. 

Last week, Godson wrote in The Times that David Trimble's tragedy "was that his generosity of spirit was insufficiently reciprocated by much of northern or southern nationalism. He took almost suicidal risks to make power-sharing work". 

We like to think ourselves as generous-minded people. Yet the truth is that we're so tribal and narrow that we'd rather cosy up to a member of the IRA Army Council than to a unionist any day. David Trimble - as Professor Liam Kennedy pointed out on television the other day - is the greatest unionist politician since Edward Carson. Like Carson, he hated sectarianism. He was ahead of his time. And ahead of us.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards