Ben Lowry: Trimble secured some key matters in 1998 but IRA is gaining ground on history

Some of the key people who negotiated the 1998 Belfast Agreement gather at Queen's University, Belfast, on its 20th anniversary. Back row from left, Jonathan Powell, David Alderdice, David Trimble, Reg Empey, Paul Murphy.''Front row from left: Monica McWillians, Seamus Mallon, Bertie Ahern, George Mitchell, Gerry Adams. Picture Pacemaker
Some of the key people who negotiated the 1998 Belfast Agreement gather at Queen's University, Belfast, on its 20th anniversary. Back row from left, Jonathan Powell, David Alderdice, David Trimble, Reg Empey, Paul Murphy.''Front row from left: Monica McWillians, Seamus Mallon, Bertie Ahern, George Mitchell, Gerry Adams. Picture Pacemaker

Tuesday’s reunion at Queen’s University of the people who negotiated the Belfast Agreement was a reminder that Northern Ireland can draw on powerful international support.

This is due mainly to the influence of Irish people, both Catholic Irish and Protestant Irish, in the United States. On Tuesday, President Bill Clinton cited a statistic that I had not heard: that 25% of the people who had ever worn a US military uniform were Scots Irish.

By the current often colourless standards that prevail in western political life, the personalities in 1998 were major ones, including John Hume, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams and Tony Blair.

Even the chief opponent of the agreement, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, was one of the most dramatic political figures in modern British history.

Senator George Mitchell was also a figure or rare stature. Note that the United States only has 100 senators — roughly one for every three million Americans (to put that in perspective, we have an MP for every 100,000 people).

Senator Mitchell was not just a member of that prestigious body, but a widely respected one. I was born in Maine, the state he represented, and asked a friend there (now aged 70+ whose politics would be pro Republican Party) about the Democrat Mr Mitchell, and the reply was one of reverence for him.

In his last Maine election (1988) Mr Mitchell won an 81% vote share.

But even amid such large characters in 1998, arguably the pivotal person in the Belfast Agreement was David (now Lord) Trimble.

Unionists for 50+ years have been hated for saying no, but recent events have illustrated that they often have reason to say no.

There is perpetual pressure on them to make concessions towards Irish nationalism, and slim prospect of them getting movement towards a more unionist position. There would be uproar if they tried, so they don’t, but concentrate instead on minimising concessions.

Yet no matter how reasonable it is for unionists to say no, no matter how cynical or sectarian or dishonest their republican opponents, a cry of discrimination will always go out when unionists do say no.

It will be a big day if Irish nationalism can, as in 1998, engage with unionist concerns without attributing them to bigotry.

David Trimble’s leadership was a key moment in unionist history, and it is a fluke that he even got there. He was approaching 50 before he was elected MP in 1990, late compared to career politicians.

John Taylor was expected to become Ulster Unionist leader in September 1995. Trimble got only 35% of votes in the Ulster Unionist Council, helped by his hardline profile at Drumcree earlier that year, and also by a reportedly bad speech by Taylor on the night of the vote.

I lived in London then and saw Trimble swiftly go from being viewed by English MPs as the latest red-faced, angry unionist to statesman. I recall two friends from law school, both ex public school with no Northern Irish links, going to hear him speak: one at the Carlton Club, the other at the Irish embassy. One, or perhaps both, of those talks was pre 1998. The word had gone round that he was a man to watch.

In establishment circles in London there has long been both goodwill towards Northern Ireland as part of the UK and a dislike of aggressive unionists. Unionist leaders who are firm but pragmatic and intelligent quickly win affection.

James Molyneaux was liked as a low key gentleman who had served in his nation, first in the Second World War and then on the House of Commons backbenches. His policy of avoiding confrontation with Ian Paisley helped maintain Ulster Unionist domination over the DUP, but the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement underlined his shocking lack of influence at Westminster. Pitifully few Tory MPs rebelled against that accord, equivalent in number to the tiny band of Labour MPs who sympathised with the IRA, such as Jeremy Corbyn.

The AIA was a disaster for unionists. Problems we have today with interfering, lecturing, partisan Irish ministers such as Simon Coveney have their origins back then.

Trimble moved fast in his recovery bid. The Belfast Agreement was 30 months after his UUP elevation.

Back in 1998 I respected the analysis of critics of the deal such as Jim Allister, Peter Robinson and Robert McCartney, particularly the latter’s claim that it was driven by London’s desire to keep bombs out of the City, but on balance, and without hesitation, I supported it.

Securing the principle of consent, removing the Irish territorial claim and getting Sinn Fein to accept Stormont were big goals.

By far the worst side effect of the deal, and one that is approaching crisis proportions, was the way it sanitised an IRA that had been fully rejected by Catholic Ireland at the ballot box. This repudiation remained clear, including among northern nationalists, until 1998.

Months ago I wrote that Martin McGuinness, for whatever reason, in the latter phase of his life tried to make the system work and I got a letter pointing out things the Sinn Fein leader had said about wanting to destroy Northern Ireland. But I think his constructive side is all the more apparent now that it is lost to the triumphalism of Michelle O’Neill – who lacks the authority to make the compromises he could make, even if she was so inclined.

McGuinness never repudiated the IRA campaign, but knew when to tread sensitively. Such appropriate conduct added to a sense of him as statesman. It would have been paradoxical, even absurd, then to charge him for past terror offences.

This is our present context, in which lowly IRA members might yet face charges but the men who led the IRA will not. Nationalist Ireland wouldn’t allow it. Mere arrests would be seen as politicised justice from British-unionist securocrats.

At the same time elderly soldiers face trials and a host of influential people in NI are pushing a grossly distorted collusion narrative.

This emerging (and unforgivable) imbalance could have reasonably led to unionists and centrists pulling support for the very idea of sharing power with terrorists, but no. It is met mostly with silence.

No wonder. There is republican hysteria when it is challenged, such as the fury on Twitter last week when I wrote of the risk the 1998 deal would ‘rehabilitate’ terror (see link below). Many people misunderstood the word, as if I said IRA violence would restart. But it is their reputation that is being revived, not their acts.

The Newry play park saga, and SDLP ambivalence in the face of it, is but an example of this trend, which is only in its infancy.

Yet still moderate people across the Province stay largely silent while murderers lie about state brutality, and while reports and even charges seem to verify their lies, all to excuse their own bloodshed, which still gets little scrutiny.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry: Irish unity might lead to immediate rehabilitation of IRA campaign