Eoghan Harris: Six reasons why David Trimble was a unique unionist leader

The praise heaped on David Trimble in death is deserved, even if some of it comes from suspect sources.

By Eoghan Harris
Friday, 29th July 2022, 9:59 am
Updated Friday, 29th July 2022, 10:35 am
David Trimble brought unionism in from the cold. He also forged a unique bond with the then Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, which was to prove crucial. The pair are seen together, above, at the unveiling of a portrait to Trimble
David Trimble brought unionism in from the cold. He also forged a unique bond with the then Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, which was to prove crucial. The pair are seen together, above, at the unveiling of a portrait to Trimble

Rather than add to the kind of admiring rhetoric he despised — and which I am strongly tempted to indulge in — I want to do something that would have pleased him: recording in practical terms why he was the greatest unionist leader of this or any generation.

Trimble had many virtues. The one that mattered most was courage.

Aristotle counted it the chief of virtues because it’s the condition all other virtues. But Trimble had the most demanding kind — moral courage.

Conor Cruise O Brien said Irish people cherished Parnell’s moral courage because they had so little of it themselves. Trimble was made of moral courage.

Let me now list six concrete reasons why David Trimble was unique among unionist leaders

Firstly, he was unique amongst mainstream unionists in formally stating that he wanted an end to what he called the internal ‘cold war’ that had existed on the island since 1920.

Captain O’Neill came close, he hardly counts as he had an Englishman’s natural emollience. But Trimble, from his first political foray with Vanguard in the 1970’s — which split because he and Bill Craig were willing to go into voluntary government with the SDLP — showed the embryo of his desire for a formal détente between unionism and nationalism.

Secondly, he had a grasp of southern Irish politics unique among unionists.

He made prescient speeches on the Arms Trial in the House of Commons in the 1990s, warning that the various attacks on Jack Lynch’s record as Taoiseach were not so very veiled attempts to rehabilitate Charles Haughey, and by extension the IRA hawks who hovered over his head.

It would never have occurred to Lord Brookeborough or James Molyneaux to advance the unionist cause by appealing to a peace faction within the Republic’s Fianna Fáil government — which belatedly blocked arming the IRA in Northern Ireland, albeit at the last minute. This not only showed Trimble’s high intelligence, but his political guile, a characteristic one does not readily associate with modern unionist leadership.

Thirdly, Trimble forged a unique bond with Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern which was to prove crucial at a critical moment in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) talks.

Dublin’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) officials, in bullish tribal mode, had persuaded Tony Blair to foist a provocative array of north-south bodies on Trimble as part of Strand Two. (The DFA had, of course, done something similar in 1973, and again in 1985, when they co-opted British prime ministers against the unionist majority.) But Trimble, determined not to be destroyed, as Brian Faulkner was at Sunningdale, baulked. He told Tony Blair he wanted to renegotiate Strand Two. Bertie Ahern was in Dublin at his mother’s funeral, when his officials contacted him, spitting fire at Trimble. Ahern told them to stand firm.

After the funeral, he went for a walk. What happened then is recounted by Senator George Mitchell in his memoir.

“At ten o’clock at night, standing alone on a dark and silent Dublin street, the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland made the decision: the Irish government would agree to renegotiate on Strand Two. It was a big decision by a big man. It made possible everything that followed.”

Why did Ahern change his mind? I believe that he and Trimble had formed such a unique bond that a kind of empathic political telepathy allowed Ahern to put himself in Trimble’s shoes and see where they pinched.

Fourth, Trimble was unique among unionists in his willingness to run risks for peace.

I got some flak for telling the Irish Times that Trimble ran more risks that John Hume. Surely this is self-evident? John Hume was backed by Dublin, London, Washington and northern and southern nationalists. Trimble was dependent on a laissez faire London and a divided unionism. If Hume failed nobody would blame him for doing his best. But if Trimble failed he would be blamed by Dublin, London Washington, and destroyed by his unionist and nationalist enemies. What courage it took for him to carry on!

Fifth. Trimble uniquely took unionism in from the cold.

Here I want to refute the delusion, common among unionists with a slim grasp on political reality, that Trimble had any alternative to taking Sinn Fein into government without decommissioning. Had he refused, Blair would have buckled because the people of the UK, along with Dublin, Washington and the whole world was watching closely to see if there was any truth in the nationalist claim that unionists didn’t want a Fenian around the place. By taking a leap of faith, with no safety nets beneath him, Trimble blitzed that doubt.

As I wrote in the Sunday Times at the time: “Saying no has never put nationalism under pressure. Since Bloody Sunday the world has looked on unionism with an unforgiving eye. Trimble’s tremendous achievement was to turn that perception around and make unionism look good for the first time in 30 years.”

Finally, I want to answer a sombre question which Dean Godson, Trimble’s definitive biographer, put to me the day after Trimble’s death.

Could Trimble have forged the same deal today, given the political culture of the Republic as it stands now?

Sadly, the answer is no. The Republic, in Bertie Ahern’s time, was far more pluralistic, less Anglophobic and less tribal about unionists than it is today. Brexit must bear some of the responsibility for this regression. But the chief culprit, aided and abetted by an appeasing media, is Sinn Fein, the party which set out to subvert the Good Friday Agreement, the historic détente which Trimble delivered in 1998.

Rather than wringing their hands and crying betrayal, unionists can prevail if they show the same grit and strategic subtlety as David Trimble.

Eoghan Harris is an Irish commentator who advised David Trimble in the 1990s