Consensus can be elusive in a place as deeply divided as Northern Ireland, but the death of its inaugural first minister, David Trimble, has prompted warm tributes from across the political spectrum. The region’s three main newspapers each ran the very same headline on their front pages: “A man of courage and vision.”
As the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Trimble will be best remembered as one of the key architects of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, effectively bringing an end to the Troubles that beleaguered Northern Ireland for decades.
Trimble’s political career began in the 1970s when he was involved in Vanguard -– a party formed in opposition to Northern Ireland’s first (failed) experiment with power sharing between unionist and nationalist parties. Even when elected as an MP for the more mainstream UUP in the 1990s, he earned a reputation as more of a hardliner than a moderate.
In 1995 he marched hand-in-hand with the Democratic Unionist Party’s Ian Paisley, wearing the sash at an Orange Order parade in the flashpoint town of Drumcree. The gesture appeared triumphalist to the mainly Catholic local residents, who wanted the parade to take a different route. If Trimble was so resistant to compromise on the route of a parade, some wondered, how could he ever compromise on broader issues of contention.
This perceived hardliner stance didn’t harm Trimble when he stood for the leadership of the UUP in 1995. His win was something of a surprise, defeating more established figures in the party. It also came at a critical time: in the wake of IRA and loyalist ceasefires, the British and Irish governments were preparing the way for formal peace talks. The stakes were very high.
A man of clear conviction
While Trimble brought an expectedly staunch unionist perspective to these negotiations, he did so with an all-too-rare ability to see the bigger picture -– making possible an agreement that many regarded as simply impossible. He considered the eventual deal flawed and imperfect but, for him, it was a compromise that compared favourably to all the alternatives. It protected Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, and provided, to put it bluntly, an opportunity to save many, many lives.
That was the basic vision, one that he simply described as his desire for a “normal society”. He contrasted it with more idealistic aspirations for Northern Ireland’s future. In his Nobel Lecture, delivered alongside leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party John Hume, he said:
Some critics complain that I lack “the vision thing”. But vision in its pure meaning is clear sight. That does not mean I have no dreams. I do. But I try to have them at night.
When Trimble campaigned for a “Yes” vote in the referendum on the 1998 Agreement,joining U2’s Bono on stage at a rally was a rare moment of colour that contrasted with his otherwise dry political style. But what he lacked in charisma and easy charm, he made up for in courage and clarity of conviction.
As the then UUP leader emerged from the negotiations on April 10 1998 to speak to the waiting media, blue skies gave way to heavy snow. Similarly, the political weather only got worse for Trimble’s leadership. While the Belfast Agreement was endorsed by a decisive majority of voters in Northern Ireland overall, it only barely received the support of a majority of Protestants. Relentless opposition, including from within his own party, was accompanied by threats to his personal security.
Eventually, Trimble’s opponents got the upper hand. The initial failure of the IRA to decommission its weapons made it harder for him to justify sharing power with Sinn Féin. The DUP replaced the UUP as the largest unionist party in 2003. Trimble himself lost his Westminster seat to an anti-Agreement challenger in 2005, and resigned as party leader the following day.
But it was only a matter of time before the DUP itself went on to share power with Sinn Féin in government, albeit against an altered backdrop. Today, despite coming under great strain, the basic parameters created by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement continue to shape the politics of Northern Ireland.
Appetite for reform of this framework has grown, but that should not be confused with any real demand for its replacement; there are now near-universal calls for the the basic principles of the Agreement to be protected.
In recent years, Trimble expressed concern that the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol undermines the Agreement he signed, and amount to “constitutional changes” that lack democratic consent. Critics, however, will wonder why the pro-Leave former UUP leader did not apply the same basic logic to Brexit itself, pointing to majority support in Northern Ireland for remaining in the EU.
After his electoral defeat, Trimble continued to take an active interest in the politics of Northern Ireland and further afield from the red benches at Westminster. He was elevated to the House of Lords as a Conservative peer in 2006, taking the title Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey, reflecting the original name of his adopted hometown.
It translates from the Irish Lios na gCearrbhachas to “fort of the gamblers” – a fitting choice for a leader whose central legacy will be defined for the gamble he took. It wasn’t a gamble that paid off for David Trimble personally, but the people of Northern Ireland continue to reap the rewards.