Owen Polley: Unionism in need of clear thinkers like Trimble now

Whatever you thought of David Trimble and his legacy, you couldn’t deny credibly that he was a towering figure in Ulster unionism.

By Owen Polley
Monday, 1st August 2022, 11:54 am
Updated Monday, 1st August 2022, 11:57 am
Lord Trimble at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester
Lord Trimble at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester

He was renowned throughout the world and shaped the Northern Ireland we know today.

It’s not unkind to suggest that his intellect and influence contrast starkly with the relative directionlessness and powerlessness of many of today’s crop of unionist politicians.

Even in recent times, while he struggled with illness, Trimble provided some of the most coherent analysis of the Northern Ireland Protocol and its effects on the Union. Many of his contributions were made through the London think-tank, Policy Exchange, and they carried an authority, particularly among centre-right decision-makers at Westminster, that contemporary representatives struggled to match. This was a result partly of his reputation, and the fact that he was regarded as one of Northern Ireland’s most significant peacemakers, but it was also because he was a heavyweight thinker, with a detailed understanding of the British constitution.

Few, if any, unionist leaders today combine a high profile with clear ideas about what unionism is and which direction it should take. But, if we’re honest, there’s a similar lack of thoughtful, inspirational leadership in Irish nationalism, and even within the national parties at Westminster.

Whether it’s a positive thing or not, it’s likely that Northern Ireland’s future will be affected more profoundly by the outcome of the contest to become Conservative leader than the plans and policies of local parties.

Yet it’s difficult to get to grips with what either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak offer, other than rival pastiches of Thatcherism. It seems like Truss is more in tune with Ulster unionist sentiment, in that she engaged with issues around the Union and the Northern Ireland Protocol. Sunak was believed to be among the politicians that urged Boris Johnson to refrain from triggering Article 16, an emergency brake that could have set aside elements of the ‘sea border’, and to avoid confronting the EU with legislation.

Last week, to give him his due, he spoke about the necessity of ‘free flowing trade’ between Great Britain and NI and expressed support for the NI Protocol bill. However, Truss introduced that policy to the House of Commons and was rumoured to favour more strident action against the sea border than Johnson. When Sunak launched his campaign, he failed to mention the Union. Afterwards, he claimed, “If I was to be honoured with the privilege of serving as prime minister, I would continue to focus on delivering for all nations in our country.”

His statement, while not necessarily inaccurate, suggested that he was not alive to the danger of accepting separatist language. In this case, he reinforced the notion of four separate ‘nations’, each of which might decide to secede from the UK, rather than emphasising our common British identity. This evidence suggests that Truss would be a louder proponent of the Union, but, alarmingly for unionists, questions about strengthening the UK constitutionally have been practically absent from the Conservative leadership campaign so far.

The protocol bill is progressing through the Commons, but even that pressing issue has been avoided by the candidates. We are now down to a members ballot, of course, which will be decided by the preoccupations of Tory activists, many of whom are part of Conservative associations in England. This generation of Tories are often assumed to be fired up by tax cuts, free market economics and deregulation. However, many of them are instinctive unionists too, who are proud of Britain and its history.

It’s disappointing that the candidates to become the Conservative leader, and prime minister, are not keen to take on big issues about separatism, as well as the country’s integrity, sovereignty and constitutional future.

That was not a criticism you could make of David Trimble. Indeed, his critics suggested that he sometimes missed important aspects of detail and symbolism because he was focussed too closely on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

He argued that the Belfast Agreement strengthened the Union, claiming that, while it required unpalatable compromises like the release of prisoners and the disbandment of the RUC, it put the ‘principle of consent’ at the heart of our political system and clarified our relationship with the Republic — ruling out its involvement in our internal affairs.

As Trimble argued strongly before his death, the protocol undermined the principle of consent and gave a foreign administration (the EU) unwarranted authority over our economy and other important matters. He realised that the people’s right to choose to remain part of the UK was effectively meaningless if they could not take part in a national referendum like Brexit and have its result apply here on the same basis as the rest of the country.

At a time when the UK’s integrity is being assaulted by separatists on several fronts, we could do with more clear thinking like this about constitutional issues, from unionists both local and national.