John Coulter: Today’s MLAs hold the legacy David Trimble and the ‘Class of 1998’ in their hands

Yesterday was an exceptionally sad day for Northern Ireland as political legend Lord Trimble was laid to rest.

By John Coulter
Tuesday, 2nd August 2022, 10:20 am
Pacemaker Press 01/08/22
The Funeral of David Trimble takes place at Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church, Lisburn.
Lord Trimble led the UUP from 1995 to 2005 and was the first person to serve as first minister of Northern Ireland.
He died on 25 July at the Ulster Hospital near Belfast, after a short illness.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Pacemaker Press 01/08/22 The Funeral of David Trimble takes place at Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church, Lisburn. Lord Trimble led the UUP from 1995 to 2005 and was the first person to serve as first minister of Northern Ireland. He died on 25 July at the Ulster Hospital near Belfast, after a short illness. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Credited by all sides in the Irish conflict as being one of the grand architects of the peace process which produced the Good Friday Agreement, he is another of that famous ‘Class of 1998’ which guided Stormont into some of its best days since the original Parliament was prorogued in 1972.

Other famous names associated with that era in the late Nineties - including Seamus Mallon, John Hume, David Ervine, Martin McGuinness and others, such as my late dad, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, who played a role in the background – have all passed away.

Perhaps the single biggest achievement of that Class of 1998 was the fact that whilst he bitterly opposed the Good Friday Agreement and was a leading light in the Unionist No campaign, former DUP leader and Moderator of the fundamentalist Protestant denomination, the Rev Ian Paisley, later Lord Bannside, eventually had a Biblical-style ‘Road to Damascus’ political conversion over the devolved Parliament and became its first DUP First Minister with the former IRA commander in Londonderry Martin McGuinness as his deputy - a relationships dubbed ‘The Chuckle Brothers.’

Indeed, Lord Trimble was also one of the many political figures for whom the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent Northern Ireland Assembly became a similar ‘Road to Damascus’ conversion.

I first met Lord Trimble in the 1980s as a senior journalist at the Belfast News Letter when he was a lecturer at Belfast’s Queen’s University. Trimble began his political journey of discovery as a supporter of the hardline Unionist Vanguard movement, and it was against that background that my first major interview with him took place.

When former UUP leader ‘Gentleman Jim’ Molyneaux retired as party boss, Trimble was one of a number of senior Unionist figures who threw their hats into the ring.

The firm favourites at that time in the 1990s were Strangford MP John Taylor, which clearly represented the Right-wing of the party, and Rev Martin Smyth, a Presbyterian minister, South Belfast MP, and Grand Master of the Orange Order, who represented grassroots Ulster Unionist.

But then came Drumcree One in 1995 and Trimble was pictured hand in hand aloft with Paisley. That unintentional ‘triumphal’ march secured Trimble the UUP crown. Perhaps there are no major big beasts politically left from the Class of 1998 and that original Assembly mandate as the 2022 mandate faces a huge challenge: not to let the achievements of Trimble et all slide into history.

As First Minister, David Trimble guided the Assembly through some very unstable days - but Stormont survived.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, the cost of living crisis, dissident republicanism, a surging TUV and extensive unease brewing in the loyalist community could all have detrimental effects on the future of Stormont.

In short, as Trimble is laid to rest, the Class of 2022 must swear allegiance to the people of Northern Ireland that they will find a way to restore the Assembly as Trimble did in his era.

The political legends that were Trimble et al delivered power-sharing. It would be a terrible shame if the current MLAs tarnished his legacy with the total collapse of Stormont.

Dr John Coulter is a former journalist with this newspaper