In a wide-ranging interview, ALEX KANE talks to the former First Minister about his ascent to the UUP leadership, the Good Friday Agreement, the eventual implosion of his party, and how he views Stormont now and in the future
Alex Kane: When Jim Molyneaux stood down from the UUP leadership in 1995 it was generally accepted that the race would be between John Taylor and Ken Maginnis. What made you decide to enter the contest: had it anything to do with the so-called ‘Drumcree factor’ (Trimble, as MP for Upper Bann, had had a very high profile in the summer of 1995 and was regarded by some as the ‘victor’)?
David Trimble: It was obvious for some time that Jim was going to step down. At that time I shared an office in Westminster with John Taylor – and shared it on the basis that I was the only member of the UUP parliamentary party who was prepared to share a room with him! But I got on well with him. I had been his election agent when he was first elected as an MEP in 1979 and I was used to his rather peculiar sense of humour – which is what everybody else complained about.
It seemed to me that John had a good chance of becoming leader: and I was fairly comfortable with that. I respected his judgment. And I also thought to myself that – because I was able to get on with him – I could become his Chief Whip. And that would put me in a nice position, because I would know what was going on without having the responsibility for it as leader.
But on the day that the story broke about Jim’s resignation I was buying my newspapers in Bow Street, Lisburn and a lady, a party member, asked me why I wasn’t standing. I got that in the course of the day from other people. And the people who were saying that to me were from the core bedrock of the party: the people who did a lot of work for the party – the activists. So I got people to canvass the Ulster Unionist Council delegates and it became clear that I had a good chance.
AK: The day your candidacy was announced I remember Gordon Lucy telling me: “He will win, Alex. The party wants something different.” Looking back, do you remember what your general impression of the party was at that point?
DT: Someone told me after the meeting that the other candidates (Ken Maginnis, John Taylor, Martin Smyth, William Ross) had contented themselves by telling everyone what great chaps they were; whereas I gave them a political speech about the issues that we were going to be confronted with and the decisions we were going to have to make. And I also said that the party was going to have to face the issue of inter-party talks (this was a year after the 1994 IRA ceasefire) and that would be one of the most difficult decisions we would have to take.
I also said that I would go anywhere to sell the Ulster Unionist Party. And I said that deliberately because I saw the way Molyneaux had got himself into a straitjacket by saying he wouldn’t go to Dublin, or do this or do that. And I just wanted to be free from all those constraints. So those were some of the factors. Drumcree was also there in the background, but not necessarily as a good factor – because the bulk of the party doesn’t like ‘trouble’ and the bulk of the party doesn’t like working closely with Ian Paisley. But when I found the Drumcree issue on my lap I didn’t run away from it.
AK: What were your very clear priorities when you were elected leader?
DT: Well, there was a process in place at that time – the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 – which set out the terms and conditions under which people who had been involved in paramilitary activity could come into the political process.
Then we had the IRA ceasefire in August 1994 and a lot of people assumed that a deal had been done – which wasn’t right. But there was a plan behind the ceasefire: which was putting together a pan-nationalist front involving Sinn Fein, the SDLP, republicans, Irish-America and even wheeling in Clinton. And the object of the exercise was to gather enough influence around that to compel a talks process that was designed in such a way as to marginalise unionism – and to hope that unionism would do its usual thing and walk out.
So it wasn’t too difficult to see that that’s what was lurking in the background. And it wasn’t too difficult to see that Paisley would never do anything positive.
During the 1992 talks (which involved the UUP, DUP, SDLP, Alliance and Government) for example, we had enormous difficulty trying to get the DUP to agree a sensible position. Their preference was to set out an impossible situation. And after that experience none of us thought that it would be possible to work positively with the DUP in future talks. And we knew that they would rather stay out, anyway, and exploit whatever difficulties came along the way.
We were engaged in bi-laterals with John Major at that stage and I knew that we couldn’t just sit there: we had to find some way of influencing the process and the structures of the process before it happened. I didn’t quite anticipate then how quickly things would happen – and that caused a bit of difficulty.
AK: It must have been enormously difficult for you, personally as well as in your role as party leader, to persuade people that at some point, be it directly or indirectly, the party would have to negotiate with Sinn Fein?
DT: During the 1996 Forum election my election agent, John Dobson, told me that at some stage down the line we were going to have to talk to the IRA and that I was the man to do it. And my reaction was not printable!
AK: But when he said that to you did you say there would be no circumstances under which that would happen: or did you accept, albeit privately, that it was inevitable?
DT: I was organising a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in October 1994 and I got a message that the Prime Minister would like a meeting. I went to the meeting. It was just me and John Major. This was just a few weeks after the IRA ceasefire and the Government was in contact with them because it wasn’t happy with the terms and conditions in which the ceasefire had been announced. They wanted to know if the campaign was really over, but the IRA wouldn’t give a clear statement on that.
What Major said to me was this: “If you were in my shoes, what would you do”? He wasn’t asking me what a unionist should do, but what he should do. And I knew that I had to give him a sensible answer. So I said, it has to be something like this: We’re proceeding on the basis that this ceasefire is permanent – with a hint that if there’s any backsliding there’ll be hell to pay. But this is the basis on which we’re talking and if you’re talking to us then you’re talking to us on this basis, too.
And Major said, “Yes, that’s what I’m going to be saying this afternoon.” That stuck with me because I realised then that I had to come to this issue with a different mindset, a different framework of what I would do if I was Prime Minister. And so it wasn’t such a big shock when – a few months later – I had to ask myself the question when I was party leader. I knew what I had to do as party leader had to be sensible and relate to the real situation we were in, rather than a situation you would like to have. So it had to be an engagement with reality: and I was in that mindset.
AK: So was it that determination to deal with the reality, rather than what the other candidates wished was the reality, which helped you win the leadership?
DT: There was something else, too. Shortly after Tony Blair became Shadow Home Secretary (July 1992) he requested a meeting with me. He told me that one of the things he wanted to do was change the Labour Party’s position on voting against the renewal of the Emergency Provisions Act each year. He wasn’t sure he could do it in one go, so he wanted to start by narrowing down their terms of opposition to two or three points and then ask the Government for a review of those points. He noted that I had raised some of these points in a speech in Parliament the previous year and wondered if he narrowed his points down to points that concerned the UUP as well could we work together on it.
Anyway, I took it back to Jim Molyneaux and we set up a meeting with Blair, Labour leader John Smith and ourselves. And what surprised me most about the meeting was that Molyneaux had never had a meeting before with Smith. He might have said hello in the corridors, but that was it. (There was a view in some UUP circles that Molyneaux was semi-detached and presided over an era of “masterly inactivity” for most of his leadership.)
AK: How important was your relationship with Blair? Would the Good Friday Agreement have been possible without him?
DT: After the Agreement I bumped into Michael Ancram (a former Conservative minister at the NIO). He started to congratulate me and I said, “Michael, I got a better deal from Tony Blair than I ever would have got from you.”
AK: Given your support for the Conservative Party did that strike you as strange, even bizarre?
DT: I had read an early profile of Blair by Frank Millar (the London editor of the Irish Times and former general secretary of the UUP) in which he said that Blair was very keen on the ‘consent principle’. I rang Frank and asked him if he thought Blair was serious. And Frank said, “Oh yes, I pushed him every way on it and he’s absolutely rock solid on the consent principle”. And I realised if that was the case then we’d be in a very different situation with talks than we would have been with the Conservatives. John Major wasn’t as bad as Willie Whitelaw, for example, and the Conservatives at that time, who would have had no compunction about shafting the Ulster Unionist Party.
There was another factor too. We had a completely deniable exchange of papers – in in the winter before the 1997 election (which it was widely assumed Labour would win) – with Blair, setting out what we thought were the realistic parameters for a solution: and we were getting reasonable responses back from him. And when I say realistic, I mean realistic but also cautious. And with the very substantial help of Paul Bew and others the proposal was put in front of Blair after he was elected that there was a huge opportunity in this talks process: and that’s what led to Blair’s visit to Belfast on May 16, 1997 – two weeks after he became Prime Minister and his first official visit outside London. It was then he made the famous speech about the ‘settlement train’ being in the station and that it would leave the station with or without Sinn Fein on board. Unfortunately, Blair failed to show the same resolution at other stages of the process.
• The key paragraph of this speech, from Trimble’s perspective, was this: “My message is simple. I am committed to Northern Ireland. I am committed to the principle of consent. And I am committed to peace. A settlement is to be negotiated between the parties based on consent. My agenda is not a united Ireland – and I wonder just how many see it as a realistic possibility in the foreseeable future. Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority here wish.”
AK: At that stage in 1997, or since then, do you think Sinn Fein has been serious about an internal settlement? What was in it for them?
DT: It was very difficult for them. The leadership – and this is my personal assessment – knew that they were up s**t creek. It wasn’t that long since they had rumbled Freddie Scappaticci (the double agent in the IRA known by the codename Stakeknife), but they didn’t dare tell people what Scappaticci was up to because the consequences for their organisation would have been devastating. Whether that was the crucial thing that made the leadership move in the direction of the political process I don’t know, but they had nowhere else to go.
Their campaign was failing. It wasn’t gone completely, but they could see how things were rumbling down and had advice from Danny Morrison (published much later) that they should cash in the campaign for political advantage while there was still some life in it.
They’re not stupid men, so they must have known that with the decision taken in the 1996-97 stage of the talks that agreement could be reached by ‘sufficient consensus’ of unionists and nationalists a deal could be reached without them – because they still represented a minority of nationalism at that point. So they knew they were going into a process at that point in which they could be outvoted: which shows that they knew how difficult their position was.
They were probably confident of their ability to shape the process while they were in the inside, but I think we haven’t really given the SDLP credit for what they did then. Sinn Fein were heavily opposed to a Northern Ireland Assembly. In December 1997 it was proving almost impossible to get them to even agree to put an Assembly on the agenda. The SDLP wanted it on the agenda but they weren’t prepared to face down Sinn Fein at that stage. It took Blair to come in with his Heads of Agreement paper – which, when you look at it now turned out to be a summary of the final agreement – to prevent collapse.
A few weeks before the final agreement we met Blair at Chequers and went through all of the outstanding issues and how we were going to settle them. I took Jeffrey Donaldson with me. Now, we didn’t quite get 100 per cent of what we said at Chequers and that was the big problem – because one of the things we had agreed on was that there had to be decommissioning before Sinn Fein could get office; or there had to be a linkage between decommissioning and taking office. And unfortunately that wasn’t there at the end of the day.
During the period before the last week, while we were notionally in talks with Sinn Fein, we weren’t in fact doing so. They were there in the plenary sessions and those sessions were very formal. Most of the serious work was done in the bi-laterals – and we did not meet Sinn Fein. But I knew Sinn Fein could be outvoted in the process.
AK: Would it have helped to meet Sinn Fein at that stage? Would it have been in your interests – even below the radar?
DT: No: although Gerry Adams kept trying to do that. The funniest moment of the lot was when I was in the toilet and there was Gerry at the next urinal, standing there, talking to me. And I told him to grow up, because doing things like that wasn’t helping. I was nearly tempted to tell him that it wouldn’t do him a lot of good if I mentioned that he was going around propositioning people in the toilet!
AK: Given what you’ve said about Sinn Fein what do you think was their real reaction to the Agreement on April 9? Did you think that it was the beginning of genuine progress and cooperation or did you sense that they would wake up one day and maybe realise that they had been suckered into something that was of no use to them?
DT: Let me go back to what I was saying earlier about not giving enough credit to the SDLP. In the last 24-36 hours they were coming under huge pressure from Sinn Fein not to do a deal: and Sinn Fein was threatening that they would hammer the SDLP for selling out and going into a Stormont that would be dominated by unionists. And that’s why in our last meeting with the SDLP, on the Thursday evening, when the SDLP were looking for some safeguards, I gave them basically what they asked for. And I did so on the basis that if the process was to succeed it would be an administration dominated by the UUP and the SDLP and if it was to work we couldn’t have a situation where they said we screwed them on this or screwed them on that. We had to have them there with a positive attitude towards it and I gave them what they needed.
One of the things John Hume wanted was that the word Secretary should be replaced with Minister. I looked at John, he shrugged his shoulders and I said ok. Then one of the SDLP team started to cry. And the only way I can rationalise it was that the sense of exclusion in the old Stormont must have been enormous that they never had the chance of being a Minister—so now the magic word Minister was such a big thing for them. (In the 1974 NI Executive the term Minister was used – and Hume was Minister of Commerce)
But the really important thing was to put the SDLP in a position where they could give a good, clear reply to any criticisms from Sinn Fein. So they had to have the various little committees which they wanted in the Assembly – which have never been used, but they are there in the Agreement.
But they didn’t really need any of this because it became clear very early on in the referendum campaign that there was going to be a massive vote among nationalists in favour of the agreement. And when the Shinners realised that, they did the quickest U-turn you have ever seen. And I’m quite sure that during the negotiations and during that last night, even on the day on which the agreement was voted through, they abstained. And the reason they abstained was their hostility to Stormont. They didn’t want Stormont: but it was what they got and what the people voted for and they proceeded to make the best of that situation.
Another little thing that I found very interesting – albeit after the referendum – was when Pavarotti was performing at an open-air concert at Stormont in 1999. And just before the reception in the Great Hall afterwards I saw Gerry Kelly, smartly dressed as always, click-clicking, almost dancing down the stairs and turning right towards the Assembly Chamber. I followed. And there he was with about 15 or 20 youngsters around him and he was doing the tourist guide stuff with an air of pride about him. And I just thought, hmm, that tells you something.
AK: You had convinced the SDLP to do a deal you were happy with. You reckoned that Sinn Fein had come in because there was nowhere else to go. Why was it so difficult for you to persuade unionism that you had delivered something that was a good deal for them?
DT: You’ve got to bear in mind the 25 years of marginalisation, of defeat politically again and again for unionism and some of those people had been around for those 25 years, like Molyneaux, Ross and Smyth, and I think the iron had got into their soul. Also, if they were to concede that this was possible and could be done, the question might be asked of them why it hadn’t been done in the previous 25 years.
And of course some of them remember back to 1975, when they could have done a deal with the SDLP – a better deal than the 1998 deal. And back in 1975 it was Smyth, Molyneaux and Enoch Powell who sank that deal. I did remind them that we had a better deal in ‘75 and didn’t take it. I also told them that we had got a better deal now than would have been the case had we stayed out of the talks process. (In 1975, when Trimble had been a member of Vanguard in the NI Convention he, along with leader Bill Craig, had supported a power-sharing deal with the SDLP. The issue split Vanguard and the deal was rejected by the DUP and UUP)
AK: I know that hindsight is a dangerous thing, but do you look back now and wish you had done things differently during the referendum campaign?
DT: We were nearly sunk right at the beginning with that incredibly stupid action by Mo Mowlam of allowing a number of IRA prisoners to be allowed out for a Sinn Fein meeting/rally in Dublin on a Saturday night, which played out again and again and again on television screens on the Sunday. And the Shinners played it for all it was worth – with the “these are our Nelson Mandelas” and all that crap.
I hadn’t seen it on TV, but when I arrived in Armagh on the Monday, to go out canvassing, my workers and local association members were shell-shocked, completely demoralised, and saying that we can’t go out there because we’ll be annihilated.
And in essence we had to restart our campaign after that. Originally our view had been that the important election for us was the Assembly election (due a few weeks after the referendum – if the Agreement had been ratified) and let the Government fight the referendum….
AK: That sounds like you were reasonably confident that the referendum would succeed without much input from you?
DT: Yes, I was assuming that it was going to get through and that we should concentrate on the Assembly election. But after that Sunday we could not assume that a majority of unionists would vote for it anymore. So we had to get a fresh campaign started from scratch, which involved bringing Blair over for an event in which he handwrote five personal pledges on a wall: and then somebody had the good idea of that concert for young people at the Waterfront Hall (when Trimble and Hume had their hands held aloft by Bono) which made for very good propaganda.
We had to start from scratch because I knew that we now had to work for a unionist majority. John Taylor had been saying to me that two-thirds overall approval would be fine, but I knew that we needed over 70 per cent to be certain that we had a majority of unionists behind us. And we just, just did it. If we had fallen short of that we would have been in an enormously difficult situation.
But the big problem for me remained the Assembly election and the fact that the party centre and party leadership had no control over what happened in the party. And that’s what eventually ended up destroying the party: because for the next half dozen years the party proceeded to prove that it was incapable of making decisions or sticking to decisions.
We got a majority from the party executive and from the Ulster Unionist Council in 1998 after the Agreement, and that should have been it. But then others ran off to run their own campaigns and refused to support this and that and we had no levers of control over them. And because I was getting votes at the 52 per cent + levels, I wasn’t going to be able to get the two-thirds I needed to change the constitution and get control.
AK: That level of internal opposition to majority-approved decisions must have been enormously frustrating?
DT: I probably spent too much time on the party when I should have been spending it on the public. We knew we were going to have these challenges and we knew we were going to have to win them and I had to spend a lot of time at internal meetings before each gathering of the UUC. That was important, because again it was primarily the activists who were backing me and allowing me to win successive votes. But I was also having to deal with the problem that the Orange Order (who were allowed to send delegates to the UUC) was anti-Agreement and sending delegates who weren’t even members of the party – and there was damn all we could do about it.
But one of the problems of me spending so much time doing that was that I wasn’t spending enough time speaking publicly to the unionist electorate. That was a mistake.
AK: One of your former supporters told me that he would “regret to his dying day” that he ever supported you, because you destroyed the UUP. How difficult is it to hear that?
DT: There were a number of young fellows who did that, one or two of whom I might have counted as friends. But they weren’t sensible. There was one in particular who I thought had the intelligence and political maturity to realise that this was the right thing to do, but who was just so bitter and whose hatred of nationalists was so deep.
And the other thing that was quite sobering to see was how deep the feelings of sectarianism are amongst some of the middle class. Some of them give a very different impression, but when push comes to shove there are some very embittered people there.
And it was frustrating because they didn’t realise that they actually had a victory. You know the old joke: republicans are too smart to admit they lost, while unionists are too stupid to realise that they won – although that’s not true of unionism as a whole. The other thing that damaged us is that the government did not deliver on the decommissioning front on the way that it should have done.
But Blair was becoming susceptible to the line that Adams and McGuinness were feeding him about “we’re in difficulty and we have to manage this organisation etc., and we need your help to get us along the way”. It took a couple of years, but they actually turned Blair around and he saw the situation from their point of view. He was still very friendly and very much concerned and he did bitterly blame himself for what happened to me – but he didn’t seem to realise that it was what he had done that did that.
AK: Do you think you were hung out to dry when Blair decided that you and the SDLP couldn’t safeguard the Agreement anymore?
DT: No, I don’t think that was his position. It was the DFA (the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin) who started the line that it has to be the DUP and Sinn Fein, because the moderates have done what they can and it’s time to move on. And the DFA was doing that because they regarded it as their primary task to look after the Sinn Fein leadership.
AK: Were they afraid that if Sinn Fein were on the sidelines the IRA would come back to the fore?
DT: It can’t have been that, because what we knew from the security services in Dublin was that Adams and McGuinness were in control of the organisation; and we knew that was the view of the British intelligence agencies as well.
But yet there were pockets in the DFA – and remember that they would have been talking to the Irish-American lobby. And that’s what happened to Richard Haass (U.S. Special Envoy to NI, 2001-3) back then. He started off being very good, but then it was the Irish-Americans who turned him round on that: or he began to see that there were advantages for him in keeping the Irish-Americans in debt because they very much controlled the Council on Foreign Relations (of which Haass became president in July 2003) and it became in his own interests to do what he did.
I should have moved against him earlier, but I did eventually get to the point where I stopped making excuses for Haass. One time in Washington I got to the point of seeking to get past Haass and it was to Condoleezza Rice (U.S. National Security Advisor): although having arranged a meeting to complain to Rice about Haass, she brought Haass along to the meeting! It was a very interesting conversation.
It was a bloody awful meeting. I phoned Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair’s chief of staff) and he was able to tell me that ‘they’ – by which he meant Rice – now know that there is a problem. And not long after, Haass departed. I should have done that earlier. That might have helped.
But, as I say, Blair was being played by Sinn Fein. He was susceptible to what they were saying.
AK: Why do you think he was susceptible to what they were saying?
DT: He’s got this bloody optimism of his – that’s part of it. And he tended to believe what they were saying to him. I was being told that the permanent secretaries were complaining about the constant personal access I had to Blair and that it should be done through the Northern Ireland Office. And on hearing that I thought to myself that it might be better not to be there (meeting Blair) all of the time. And that was another mistake I made.
It was actually Peter Mandelson who warned us about this, although we didn’t actually pick up on the seriousness of it. He told us that we shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which Adams and McGuinness are constantly badgering Blair. And this was virtually on a daily basis.
AK: Do you think that Blair believed that Sinn Fein was serious about an internal settlement and that if he accommodated them the point would be reached when he was able to say that all was well and the Agreement was up and running?
DT: That wasn’t Sinn Fein’s position in 1998 (the Agreement working well with them at the heart of it), but it was their position a few years later. In 2005 we got wiped out, the DUP were in pole position and what did the republicans do? They very quickly, very quietly and without telling other people about it beforehand – without any political negotiation – go and decommission: and I have no doubt that it did happen and was as complete as it could be in the circumstances. And they did that without positing a political price for it.
They were quite happy to be niggardly on decommissioning when it was feeding into Blair and the other parties – in which Blair thought that he always had to give them things, which did have a very negative impact on unionist opinion. But after 2005 they just stopped doing that and got rid of a huge obstacle.
AK: Was there a point between 2001 and the 2005 election when the UUP was, as you say, “wiped out,” that you thought that the job of nailing down the Agreement could no longer be done by you?
DT: Before the November 2003 Assembly election (when the DUP nudged ahead of the UUP by 30-27 and then rose to 33-24 when Donaldson, Foster and Beare defected) we were told that the IRA was telling Adams and McGuinness to say anything they wanted as long as they secured an Assembly election – because they wanted an election to destroy the SDLP. And after that election – with the DUP and Sinn Fein the lead parties – it was clear what was going to come.
The IRA could see – and McGuinness has already said this – that the DUP were up for a deal: and the DUP position in the 2003 election clearly showed they were up for an agreement. They talked about a ‘fair deal,’ which meant they were up for negotiation – and who were they going to negotiate with? It had to be the governments and Sinn Fein. So that was pretty well on the cards then. I could content myself by saying that what we did during those five years from 1998-03 was to force the DUP to change its position to what it is now. But that doesn’t mean that the Assembly is running as it should.
AK: Looking in as observer now how do you view the period from 2007 to now?
DT: We have a dysfunctional administration that is unable to agree and unable to have a civilised relationship. Both those parties have the same problem: because neither party can give an honest account of where it is. The Shinners cannot admit that they realised that the terrorist campaign wasn’t going to work, was the wrong thing to do and now all they can do is work in the present process and accept that the future is in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland.
They can’t say that, even though that is the position they have put themselves in. They abandoned the terrorist campaign because it wasn’t working. They try and exculpate themselves by saying it was a campaign for equality, which it wasn’t, so they’re trying to do this rewriting of history.
The DUP are in a similar position, too. They launched a campaign against the Agreement and their original position from April 1998 was that it was terrible and had to be destroyed. Then they got their St Andrews’ fig leaf, which I don’t think impresses anybody – and people can see that the DUP has changed. But the DUP are not able to say that they have changed.
And if both those parties were to give an honest account of themselves then they would have a basis on which they could work together. But they haven’t been able to do that.
AK: There have been two distinct phases of the process so far. The 1998-2003 phase and then 2007-now. Neither of them seems to have worked. Do you foresee a time when this process and the institutions will work?
DT: You don’t have to change the structures or the architect to make it work. All you have to do is get the two party leaderships to come to terms with themselves and the situation they’re in.
AK: How likely is that? How likely is it that they can ‘man up,’ admit that they didn’t want to be where they’ve found themselves, but agree to now make the best of it?
DT: McGuinness is capable of doing that. I don’t know about Robinson.
AK: What about Robinson’s possible successor, maybe in a few months time?
DT: He would have retired before now if he was able to get anyone to take the job! Anyway, because the leadership of the party can’t give an honest account of how it got where it is and Robinson spends half his time barking at republicans and denouncing them, he feeds that mindset.
You’re not going to see a change of attitude in the DUP until you see it coming from the leadership first. And that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon at the moment. But yes, the public are getting quite irritated with the politicians and unfortunately that also means getting irritated with Stormont – and that’s not a healthy state of affairs.
Also, because republicans are not giving an honest account of how they got where they are they are having trouble with their grassroots and supporters – who are saying, “you were fighting for a united Ireland and now you’re in Stormont, so how are you going to get it”? And Sinn Fein is replying, “demography and taking power north and south” – which isn’t working. And some of them thought that the decision to create a Scottish Parliament in 1997 would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom which would play into their hands.
But there is still a huge problem here for us, because there is still a threat to the United Kingdom although now it comes from the 45 per cent of the Scottish electorate.
AK: How do you think unionists here have responded to that threat?
DT: I don’t know. I’m not following things that closely. I prefer to keep myself detached…
DT: Look, I have an obligation to the Ulster Unionist Party. It was on my watch that they got wiped out and I have to take some of the responsibility for that. And one of the things I have to do as a result of that is make sure I don’t do anything unhelpful to the leadership and – where I can – to support what they’re doing. It’s one of the reasons I turn down so many interviews from the Belfast media – who want to have things stirred up. I’m just keeping completely out of that.
I was very much in favour of the link-up with the Conservatives. That’s why I joined the Conservatives and I told Cameron that’s why I was joining. I set out the reasons why it was a good thing to do: because it’s the only way you can start to dismantle, as it were, the still very strong sectarian feelings that exist in Northern Ireland – which are not diminishing unfortunately. And the only way you change the problem is by changing the nature of politics here.
The best single way of doing that is to get the national parties involved and have a realignment of political parties here: which would involve the Conservative and Unionist Party becoming a more comprehensive party and Catholics who want to support the Union could join and play an active part. And the same with Labour. That change is actually hugely important because we need to get a change in the atmosphere of politics here.
AK: With signs of a slight revival in the UUP and two MPs back in the Commons, would you like to see Cameron and Nesbitt revisit the UCUNF project?
DT: It was obvious after the 2010 election that the DUP were putting a lot of pressure on Cameron; and his own party would have been doing the same thing, too, saying the UUP have no seats and the DUP has eight. And some would say it’s a no-brainer what you do in those circumstances.
But now the situation is changing and the next Assembly election is going to be absolutely critical for the UUP. The council elections last year were good for them and in some places the results were incredibly good. Getting the two MPs was good, although I would have preferred it to have been done without a deal. But at the moment the leadership of the Conservative Party is turning its mind more and more to Scotland because the Scottish threat is huge: but there are opportunities for the party with the collapse of the Lib-Dems and if the Labour Party swings to the left.
AK: Is the United Kingdom safe?
DT: It’s safe from what we had been concerned about over the last 30 years. Republican attempts to detach Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom have failed and they are not going to succeed. The fact that the quality of our politics and our administration is poor is, itself, a problem, but I can’t quite see it being a threat to the Union. The big threat comes from Scotland. There is going to be another referendum five or 10 years from now, so we (unionists across the UK) need to start having a sensible discussion with people in Scotland. We also have to acknowledge that there were huge mistakes in the No campaign during last year’s referendum. We failed to give a positive case for the Union: it was all on the doom and gloom stuff…
AK: But isn’t that a criticism which could be made of unionists in Northern Ireland?
DT: There is a difference. One of the reasons a lot of unionists here don’t do it is because they say there is no point doing it because “republicans are not going to change”. But I don’t accept that situation and I think one should be making a positive case here.
AK: How do you respond to the charge that at key moments between 1998 and 2003 you put the process before the party?
DT: I’m very, very cross with the people who are responsible for saying things like that. Many of them were the internal opposition who were in cahoots with the DUP. Had they been positively working for the party of which they were a member we would not have been in that situation.
Yes, I did make mistakes. I should not have been so ready to let John Taylor and Ken Maginnis retire (neither of them stood in the 2001 general election and the UUP lost both seats): I should have kept them in to fight that election. They would have held their seats and that would have made a very different situation afterwards.
AK: Did you feel a sense of personal betrayal from some people at that time?
DT: Yes and it was they who did the damage to the party. It was infuriating but there was no point in getting involved in letting off steam against them. To a large extent what they did was actually a reflection of what was honestly in their minds and then it became clear what sort of a person they were.
AK: How do you feel when you see some former colleagues (now DUP MLAs or MPs) boasting about the success of the DUP and responding to criticism with “we’re still dealing with the problems Trimble left us”?
DT: It’s a reflection on their intelligence and character. But as I said earlier there are deeper pools of bigotry in this country and of political prejudice here than I had taken account of.
AK: Do you think history will be kind to you?
DT: I was at a dinner party a few years ago when one of the guests, a writer, said that history wouldn’t be kind to former Secretary of State John Reid. Another guest replied: “But that’s because you will be writing the history.”
• Alex Kane interviewed Lord Trimble on August 14