David Montgomery: Like the boy I recall at school, David Trimble was happy to be alone

A reminiscence from the owner of the News Letter:

By David Montgomery
Saturday, 30th July 2022, 7:37 am
Updated Saturday, 30th July 2022, 8:06 am
David Trimble, with glasses, as a Bangor Grammar schoolboy in the air cadets. David Montgomery was also at Bangor Grammar, a few years behind
David Trimble, with glasses, as a Bangor Grammar schoolboy in the air cadets. David Montgomery was also at Bangor Grammar, a few years behind

Only seven houses and around three hundred yards separated my childhood terraced home from that of David Trimble’s — only slightly grander — semi-detached in, respectively, Victoria Drive and Victoria Road in Bangor.

As school boys he was older so he never noticed me, but I can still see that distinctive red-headed and invariably solitary figure striding up the hill to Bangor Grammar.

The shared background allowed me to reconnect years later and the occasion was the party traditionally thrown by the Daily Mirror at the Labour Conference, not that David would have had much taste for either of those institutions.

David Montgomery is executive chairman of National World, which owns the News Letter. Born in Northern Ireland, he is a former editor of the News of the World and was chief executive of Mirror Group newspapers at the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement

Like many other obstacles, he overcame his natural instincts and became the first Unionist Party leader to attend a Labour conference.

To avoid embarrassment on either side an introduction between Trimble and Tony Blair was orchestrated when they accidentally on purpose encountered each other at the Mirror party.

There was suspicion if not downright hostility between Labour and Unionists, the former with an entrenched view of Ulster Prods.

David with his soft voice and soaring intellect did enough that evening to counter Labour’s treasured image of one dimensional, rabble rousing politics of unionism.

Victoria Road in Bangor, Co Down where it intersects with Victoria Drive, going off to the left. David Trimble lived in a terraced house in Victoria Rd, David Montgomery lived in Victoria Drive. Pic taken from Google Images

Within a year Labour was in power and in two years, Trimble leadership and collaboration with Blair brought the Good Friday Agreement.

That night in Blackpool in October 1996 said much about David.

As the Mirror party broke up, all the hugely impressed Labour stars — John Prescott, David Blunkett, Alasdair Darling, Margaret Beckett — jostled for the privilege of taking David on to dinner. He would have none of it.

Unlike many politicians he had no desire to be feted.

David Trimble chose to dine on his own behind a pillar at the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, above, rather than sit with cabinet ministers when he became the first unionist leader to attend a Labour conference in 1997

In the opulent dining room of the Imperial Hotel the various groups of soon to be cabinet ministers were seated along with editors, press barons and the increasing number of business backers of Labour.

At a certain point I was urged to seek out David and renew the dinner invitation.

I found him at a single table behind a pillar which he had used to prop up the historical biography he was consuming along with his solitary meal.

Needless to say he preferred his own company and declined.

The title of his own biography, Himself Alone by Dean Godson, summed up David Trimble.

It was alone that he came to his momentous decision to sign up to the Good Friday deal that hung in the balance up to the final hour.

On Maundy Thursday 1998 I received a call from a somewhat panicking Downing Street official asking me to speak to David who was not budging on some final point.

I tried David’s mobile and it was John Taylor, now Lord Kilcooney, who answered.

John’s exact words are lost to my memory but the message was clear — only David could decide and nothing more said could influence him either way.

In subsequent years speaking with David he never adopted any grandeur about that decision or his achievement.

I hope that he took quiet pride in the way Northern Ireland has developed over the last quarter century.

Like many of us who live elsewhere and visit from time to time it is a stunning transformation.

Not all may be perfect but increasingly all cultures are sharing the unique heritage, good and bad, and look forward confidently and it is the Good Friday Agreement that seeded this.

David was not only the bravest of men politically. He was also physically courageous.

As first minister, attracting threats from both sides, he would go without protection officers when in London, preferring to walk or go by Tube, maintaining his freedom as an ordinary citizen.

Perhaps that demonstrates the values that guided his life: freedom of expression, the right to enjoy a private existence sometimes taken as Northern protestant reticence but actually manifesting a deep respect for his fellows; and finally the quiet contribution of public service that David continued in the House of Lords.

Many of the protagonists in the peace talks of the 1990s are no longer with us.

There were many fallings out in the process, none more apparent at the time as between David and Mo Mowlam, the Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who resigned in part because the relationship with David and mainstream unionism broke down in bitterness.

Who is to say which of them was most to blame for that.

However it is a measure of David’s nobility that long after they had both left office the two of them met, at my home in London, and they made it up.

A measure of David’s humanity is his relationship with Blair, a deep friendship, sharing personal as well as political problems.

David Trimble was Protestant and Unionist to the core. But he changed the perception of that culture.

He did not bear grudges and he did not seek personal aggrandisement nor did he tolerate flattery, instead radiating humility and equality.

His formidable intellect challenged the past, cherishing its heritage but rejecting what stood in the way of progress.

His bold solitary step will continue to echo for new generations of the Northern Irish.

David Montgomery is executive chairman of National World, which owns the News Letter