Ben Lowry: A high powered gathering at holiday time in tribute to Trimble

The first sense of spring often comes on a mild day in February.

The service for Trimble. His family are to the left, politicians including Boris Johnson and Micheal Martin in the perpendicular, facing row
The service for Trimble. His family are to the left, politicians including Boris Johnson and Micheal Martin in the perpendicular, facing row

The first sense of autumn is six months later, on a damp August day.

This year it rained on the very first day of August, and there was a drizzle that afternoon, when David Trimble was buried at Blaris.

There is never, however, so much as a trace of autumn in August in hot locations in the northern hemisphere, such as the Mediterranean. No wonder that many politicians escape the climate of these islands to the sun this month. They have pressured jobs.

Dean Godson, in a perfectly judged tribute to Lord Trimble at that service on Monday, noted how the ex first minister of Northern Ireland had attracted such a gathering at short notice i peak holiday season.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, came over from London. Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach, came up from Dublin, as did a predecessor, Bertie Ahern and the president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins.

All Northern Ireland Office (NIO) ministers were in attendance led by the secretary of state, Shailesh Vara, as was the shadow secretary Peter Kyle. There was also an array of local political leaders.

People have talked about David Trimble’s funeral as having been unpretentious, which it was, held in Harmony Hill church, a modestly sized 1960s-style building. Inside, the atmosphere was that of both an intimate and high-powered event.

The four children, two sons and two daughters, Richard, Victoria, Nicholas and Sarah, all read with great poise from biblical passages.

Hymns included Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘For all the Saints’ (which had personal resonance for me, having been sung at a close relative’s funeral not so long ago).

There was a warm tribute from the Very Rev Dr Charles McMullen, who had been assistant minister at Harmony Hill in the 1980s, a time when David Trimble was a parishioner but not then in elected office.

A coincidence of timing of the service is that at a time of political polarisation a diverse group of people, including the ex Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and Traditional Unionist leader Jim Allister, were paying tribute to a man who helped secure a big cross-party agreement.

I was sitting just behind the photographer who took the picture above. When Mr Johnson or Mr Martin were sitting, I could not see them over the coffin, so I could not assess their expression during the address by Lord Godson, a biographer of David Trimble (like our political editor Henry McDonald), and his pointed references to the former Upper Bann MP having been at a disadvantage in 1998 negotiations because the IRA had influence in London, Dublin and Washington. “David might have possessed the moral high ground, but it was armed republicans who often enjoyed the inside track.”

Lord Godson also referred to the “tenacity” of the ex Ulster Unionist leader in the face of “the terrorist violence of the Troubles which took the lives of a number of colleagues and students at Queen’s University”.

It is almost impolite now to mention terrorism. Even Lord Godson, rightly on such an occasion, did so sparingly. David Trimble could be irascible, but he was not bitter.

At points during the tribute, President Higgins shifted in his chair before looking back to the speaker, including after a line about Trimble having been undaunted by accusations against him, which “included the idea ... that he ‘didn’t want a Fenian about the place’”.

I wondered if it was disapproval, of blunt talk or a reflection of the fact that Mr Higgins keeps a tiring schedule, far past normal retirement age.

At points I tried to glance to my left and backwards to try to see Mr Adams’ reaction to it all, but he seemed always to stare ahead through his glasses, inscrutable.

Michelle O’Neill sat near Colum Eastwood and Stephen Ferry, politicians who have latterly found common cause on issues such as Brexit. Days after the funeral there was a kerfuffle when Ms O’Neill said the IRA had “no alternative” to war. But five years ago she said something even more stark – that the IRA team killed at Loughgall in 1987 by the SAS that “they did not go looking for war, war came to them”. In fact it is hard to think of other societies which would have let such men, accused of scores of murders, roam the border before stopping them.

On Monday Ms O’Neill was briefly outnumbered by a crowd of people who (mostly quietly) view the IRA with contempt, including those not so quiet, brave Irish critics of terror Liam Kennedy, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Kevin Myers (Lord Godson cited another, Eoghan Harris).

Lord Godson spoke of David Trimble’s admiration for Bertie Ahern. It was perhaps helpful, at this time of Irish anglophobia, for unionists to be reminded of men such as Mr Ahern and Mr Martin with whom they can do business.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor