Early this week the death was announced of Northern Ireland’s first First Minister, Lord David Trimble. Many of the younger people may not even recognize his name, but for those of us who lived through the tortuous period of time before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, he was the man who brought the Ulster Unionists into the historic deal which saw an end to civil war in Northern Ireland.
It was his role as co-architect of the Belfast Agreement that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize with SDLP leader, the late John Hume, in December that same year.
After both men delivered their lectures at the presentation ceremony, they retired to a city hotel in Oslo with their respective party delegations. David Trimble is on record as saying that what unfolded next demonstrated the significance of what had been achieved on Good Friday.
“When the ceremony was over and we retired to the hotel, we found the hotel was assuming that the one party would be in one room and the other party would be in another room,” he told the PA news agency, “we said no we’re going to relax and celebrate the achievement together with all our companions who had come there with each of the parties. I think that was a clear signal about how we were going to proceed.”
Not Always Thus
Yet, it has to be said that David Trimble was not always the Statesman he came to be. He began his career as a defiant Protestant Unionist. Edgar Graham, a colleague of his at Queen’s University, where he lectured in law, had been shot dead by the IRA, which made him very bitter. When he first entered politics in the early 1970s, he joined a group called the Vanguard whose leader opposed civil rights for Catholics. Trimble’s time there saw him support a 1974 loyalist strike during which Protestants protested against the power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement.
Ironically, the Sunningdale proposals were not far removed from those he would himself campaign for twenty years later.
Trimble had risen to the head of the party in 1995, replacing its longstanding leader, James Molyneux, and was initially seen as a hardliner. By the time the Belfast Agreement had been signed he and his family were the subjects of horrendous abuse and intimidation from extreme loyalists who regarded him as having jeopardised the Union. He was alienated from the Orange Order and other politicians like Ian Paisley.
His singular achievement was that facing the greatest of odds and the most hostile, unhelpful, and obstinate of opponents he doggedly stuck to his task and succeeded in establishing foundations for democratic politics to become possible in Northern Ireland. He had to cajole a sufficient body of, at best unenthusiastic unionists, to at least consider the new arrangements could work. David Trimble did that. Without his single-minded leadership, the whole Good Friday Agreement could have smashed to smithereens.
There are two iconic images of Trimble which show how far he moved in his political thinking. In the first, he is shown in his Orange Order sash linking hands in the air with Ian Paisley, the then leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. The two were at the end of a controversial parade down the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown, County Armagh in 1995. There had been an attempt by the RUC to stop the march for fear of violence, but the unionists had remained in situ for two days until the police relented. Trimble and Paisley’s gesture was seen by the nationalist community as a gesture of triumph.
The second image stands in stark contrast. In this, we see Trimble with his hand held aloft again, but on this occasion by U2’s Bono, whose other hand holds that of John Hume, the then leader of the SDLP. The three are on the stage of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast at a concert in 1998, an event attended by 2,000 young people from the North, which was held to promote a YES vote in the Referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. On stage, the famous singer introduced them as, “Two men who have taken a leap of faith out of the past and into the future.”
The image came to symbolize the hope of the future and a new beginning for all.
Holding a Fragile peace
David Trimble’s passing is a reminder of the other leading figures who worked so tirelessly for peace in Northern Ireland and who are no longer with us We remember John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Mo Mowlam, Martin McGuinness, and David Ervine. It is to be fervently hoped that the fragile peace they brought into being will not be endangered in these uncertain times as we face the challenges of Brexit and a new untried Prime Minister and Conservative leader in the UK.
We can only pray we have not looked our last on the likes of David Trimble, people who were able to look beyond themselves to the greater cause.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan