Ben Lowry: I never hesitated in my support for David Trimble’s 1998 agreement

My first encounter with David Trimble was, if I recall correctly, in 2001.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 30th July 2022, 7:33 am
Updated Saturday, 30th July 2022, 8:15 am
David Trimble with Ulster Unionist delegates, the day the Belfast Agreement was signed. It was a partial recovery from the disastrous Anglo Irish Agreement  of 1985, and it wouldn’t have happened without him
David Trimble with Ulster Unionist delegates, the day the Belfast Agreement was signed. It was a partial recovery from the disastrous Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985, and it wouldn’t have happened without him

I had been working in newspapers since 1996 but had edged my way up from sub editing towards reporting, which I had only started doing the year before.

Thus I was not entirely confident asking important people questions.

I had admired Trimble very much since the Belfast Agreement. He was obviously a man of the highest intelligence, and there was also something striking about the way in which he confidently broke from being a hardliner to a compromiser almost in an instant, to reach a deal.

Trimble was a most unlikely leader, being such an awkward character, yet at the same time he seemed — from that moment of breakthrough —a natural leader. And he had an aura ever since.

That day in 2001 at an Ulster Unionist conference in the Waterfront Hall I seem to recall asking David Trimble about policing, as he moved from one part of the hall to the other. As was usual with him, there was a small floating crowd of delegates and media walking with him.

I was writing a lot about policing at the time, and flagrant attacks on officers by rioters, which police felt unable to repel due to human rights constraints.

I don’t recall the question but he barked at me, as if it was stupid (which, given that I had partly contrived the question just in order to interact with him, it probably was). He said the matter had been addressed in one of the conference debates, presided over (I for some reason think) by Sylvia Hermon.

While I cannot recall the question, I do recall thinking that he had wrongly interpreted it as hostile.

I was rattled by the encounter.

I had been in my mid 20s when the 1998 Belfast Agreement was signed and had supported it without hesitation.

OK, my politics were a lot more liberal then than now but even then I was getting increasingly troubled by some of the challenges facing unionists in Northern Ireland.

So I overlooked the downsides to the Belfast Agreement.

Prisoner releases? That is what happens in peace deals, I thought.

Sinn Fein in government? Maybe, but they were now accepting Stormont rule, a pretty extraordinary change from them.

Above all I was persuaded to support the deal by the principle of consent. It seemed remarkable to me that the Irish state was now abandoning its territorial claim on Northern Ireland and that the IRA was accepting the possibility that NI might stay forever in the UK.

Always in the back of my mind in 1998 was the Anglo Irish Agreement (AIA) of 1985. I was 13 when it was signed and bunked off the afternoon session of Saturday school (which, embarrassingly, we had to attend) to take off my tie, put on trainers, hide my blazer in my bag, and attend the huge anti agreement rally in Belfast city centre.

The AIA was easy to understand, even to a teen. Yet in a way it has taken me the near 40 years since it was signed to absorb it fully, and how disastrous it was.

Above all it was a manifestation of a British establishment naivete about Irish nationalism. They foolishly thought that Ireland would help fight the IRA, when in fact the Irish authorities continued their stubborn extradition refusals (as a consequence of which so many people were massacred on the border).

London just as foolishly thought until recently that there would be goodwill on legacy, when in fact the Irish bureaucracy adopt a position on the past that is barely distinguishable from Sinn Fein. They have been at one with republicans in their approach, such as taking the hooded men case against Britain to the point of humiliation at Strasbourg (where all judges but the Irish one dismissed Dublin’s final bid to frame the UK for torture).

Fine men such as Micheál Martin, who despises IRA terror, have been unable to stand up to this anti British culture, even as Taoiseach.

The 1998 agreement seemed to me to be a partial recovery from the calamity of 1985.

And it would not have happened without unionist faith in Trimble.

On radio this week I said that all of my encounters with him were fractious, like that first one in the Waterfront Hall. I partly said that for dramatic effect, because while I do recall difficult phone calls etc I also recall agreeable later meetings, such as interviewing him at the joint unionist event against the Northern Ireland Protocol in Manchester, at last year’s Tory conference. (Incidentally there was an almost moving sense of detente that day between various unionist factions, that have been warring since 1998: UUP, DUP, then later TUV).

But I have long had the sense that most unionists admire Trimble and did from 1998. Yes, he was despised in some quarters for some of his compromises but he never was naive. He never thought that by learning Gaelic and trying to seem nice to nationalism, all would be well.

As it happens I have come to see some serious snares in the Belfast Agreement that I did not foresee back then. But that does not detract one whit from my view of Trimble. He got some things wrong? Sure he did. Few win the concessions he did without making blunders.

All unionists know in their soul that he cared about our community. It is a group that is hard to define — a distinctive people who are mostly Protestant, but some of whom were never so, and many of the rest of whom increasingly reject the label Protestant. People who are British in ways that are intuitive and hard to describe.

For all the confusion among the disparate pro Union community as to how to proceed politically, there is an awareness that this group — unionists, Protestant Irish, Ulster Scots, British Irish, whatever term you prefer — face erosion.

And we know that Trimble knew that, cared passionately about it, and saw a sudden opportunity to do something.

To try to secure Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor