David Trimble: extract from biography written by News Letter political editor Henry McDonald tells how Belfast / Good Friday agreement was almost lost because UUP leader’s lieutenants were jumping ship just when he needed them most

David Trimble needed all the strength he could muster on Good Friday morning, because a fresh rebellion was about to break out in the ranks. Two of the three rebels in the UUP known as the ‘baby barristers’, John Hunter and Peter Weir, walked out before a final deal was reached.

By Henry McDonald
Thursday, 28th July 2022, 5:00 am

Trimble also lost the services of David Brewster, who had to take the ferry to Scotland that morning to get married. Even if he had stayed Brewstser was adamant that he too would have deserted owing to the nature of the deal on offer.

Jeffrey Donaldson, meanwhile, was getting increasingly nervous about the absence of a link between the early release of prisoners and decommissioning. There were fears that he too would jump ship. The younger Ulster Unionists whom Trimble had once promoted – to the detriment of older, more loyal and reliable figures, some in the party said – were running away when their leader needed them most.

One of those who remained loyal, Stephen King, described the atmosphere among the UUP talks team as “very poisonous”.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble is swamped by the media as rumours of a deal spreads like wild fire. PACEMAKER BELFAST 10/4/1998

Shortly after lunch Trimble came into the talks-team room to announce that his party officers were seriously split on the proposed agreement. He had received the final draft of the agreement that morning and distributed copies among his team for examination.

There were two main sticking points: the release of terrorist prisoners, and the question as to whether Sinn Fein would be allowed to serve in an Executive government in the absence of IRA decommissioning. The other parties at the talks had already accepted the final draft and there was some irritation that the Ulster Unionists were prevaricating.

As the UUP were debating among themselves whether or not to accept it, a delegation from the Alliance Party burst through the door with their leader, Dr John Alderdice. The Alliance chief started to berate several senior members, including Jeffrey Donaldson, for holding up the peace accord. John Taylor told Dr Alderdice to get lost while other UUP members screamed that it was very easy for Alliance to agree to this deal.

Shortly after this brief, bizarre confrontation, Donaldson, Weir and David Campbell, another personal ally of Trimble, walked out. A close friend of Trimble’s since ‘Ulster Society’ days, Campbell left with tears in his eyes. The emotion of that historic afternoon and the punishing talks schedule were too much for a number of UUP delegates.

Trimble, though, pressed ahead and started to take soundings from those left in the room about their concerns over prisoners and decommissioning. Those who remained demanded a meeting with Tony Blair, even though the fine detail of the agreement was already in print.

Blair learned about the discord within the UUP following a telephone conversation between Trimble and a newspaper magnate early in the afternoon. The latter had relayed the news to Downing Street that Trimble’s delegation was on the verge of walking out rendering the agreement dead in the water. So, a mid-afternoon crisis meeting was set up between Blair and Trimble.

The discussion between the prime minister and the UUP leader was, as usual, extremely cordial but Blair was still firm in his view that he could not at this stage change the text of the agreement. Trimble impressed upon him that decommissioning was an issue for Strand 1, an internal Northern Ireland matter, and thus under the British government’s control – the prime minister had the power to make changes to the text. But Blair would not budge. He argued that any late modifications of the text would precipitate a crisis with the Irish government.

Instead he offered a letter giving Trimble personal assurances about IRA disarmament. Trimble and his colleagues then returned to Castle Buildings to brief the talks team and wait for Blair’s letter.

There was a moment of low farce in this high political drama when the PM’s chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, arrived at the door into the UUP delegates’ room. Since the incident with the Alliance leader, the UUP had kept the door locked. Powell could not get in and started to bang on the door. It took several minutes for someone inside within the UUP group to hear him. At last he could enter and hand over the letter from Blair.

Trimble read the letter first and then handed it over to his deputy John Taylor. The message stated, over Blair’s personal signature:

“I understand your problem with paragraph 25 of Strand 1 is that it requires decisions on those who should be excluded or removed from office in the Northern Ireland Executive to be taken on a cross-community basis.

“This letter is to let you know that if, during the first six months of the shadow Assembly, or the Assembly itself, these provisions have been shown to be ineffective, we will support changes to these provisions to enable them to be made properly effective in preventing such people from holding office.

“Furthermore, I confirm that in our view the effect of the decommissioning section of the Agreement, with decommissioning schemes coming into effect in June, is that the process of decommissioning should start right away.”

The agreement would now live or die, depending on whether or not Trimble’s team believed Blair’s promises. Taylor admits now that the letter was “a bit of a fudge” but that Trimble had to make a judgement in the round, to balance the UUP’s achievements in rolling back cross-border bodies, and securing the Union on the basis of consent.

Crucially Taylor nodded to Trimble that he could live with it. Ken Maginnis then gave an impassioned speech on why the UUP must back the deal. Maginnis later insisted that it was he rather than Taylor who first endorsed Trimble’s move to support it. The former MP later described those final hours in Castle Buildings as “the most traumatic event of my political life. I never looked around a room and saw so many people on the verge of tears, I think David Trimble himself was on the verge of tears”.

Snowflakes fell on Trimble’s head as he stood outside Castle Buildings in an unseasonal storm to address the world’s media. He declared: “I have risen from the table with the Union stronger than when I sat down ... It’s not perfect, it’s the best we can get at the moment.”

l In tomorrow’s News Letter: Trimble returned home a statesman in the world’s eyes but without a penny in his pocket. Stress made him forget his PIN number