Former First Minister Lord Trimble talks to ALEX KANE about leading the UUP, dealing with the DUP and talking to Sinn Fein
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...
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 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.
AK: How important was your relationship with Blair? Would the Agreement have been possible without him?
DT: After the Agreement I bumped into Michael Ancram (a former Tory minister). 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 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 UUP.
There was another factor too. We had a completely deniable exchange of papers – in the winter before the 1997 election – 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.
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.
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