How Paisley became Trimble…

With the historic anniversary of the Belfast Agreement coming up this week, the Irish Times has been running a series of OpEds on the subject (all subscription locked, I’m afraid). Yesterday, Peter Robinson tried to make a fist of arguing that the Belfast Agreement had failed (‘cast into a Sadducee’s grave’, if I recall his exact words of November 2003) and that there was no just cause for a ‘celebration’ as such. It contrasts with Gerry Adams’ contention that the Agreement had delivered change. Winners get to write the history, as one DUP source told Frank MIllar. Millar’s own take is that for all that the DUP finished a deal that Trimble began, the measure of the latter’s success lies in the precise continuity of Paisley to Trimble’s course.

…it is only as Paisley prepares for retirement that we may fully appreciate that what started out as Trimble’s story of challenge and change became a tale of two bitter adversaries who trod a strikingly similar path and would meet not dissimilar ends.

The Belfast Agreement offered Northern Ireland peace and triggered a unionist civil war. In 1998 Trimble gambled everything to secure the agreement, and Paisley subsequently fought him and his Ulster Unionist Party to destruction. Yet it can be argued that the real story of their respective leaderships is one of remarkable continuity.

Both men in the end answered to the same imperatives – to end the dangerous estrangement between Northern Ireland and its senior partner in the British Union, and to seek to secure the Union by making the concessions necessary to reconcile the North’s growing nationalist and republican minority to the reality of it.

Though there were significant differences between the Belfast Agreement and the one signed at St Andrews in November 2006 – not least the decommissioning of the IRA and acceptance of Policing by Sinn Fein, Millar notes:

However, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern spoke for the rest of the parties when asserting that the alterations to the 1998 accord were “Good Friday compliant”. In any event, the internal unionist argument was lost on a wider public watching mesmerised on March 26th, 2007, as television stations around the world broadcast the once unimaginable image of Paisley sitting alongside Adams.

Their encounter was public confirmation of a deal already done. And on May 8th, 2007, Paisley accepted nomination as co-equal First Minister in a new powersharing executive alongside Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. As if to underline that there is little sentiment or lasting gratitude in politics, missing from all official guest lists that day were the original first and deputy first ministers, Trimble and the SDLP’s Séamus Mallon, without whose efforts none of it would have come to pass.

And later:

Yet if Trimble had not embraced the concept of powersharing at Executive level and been willing to absorb the shock of RUC reform, there would have been no accommodation with the SDLP, much less Sinn Féin. Had it not been for the original Ahern/Trimble engagement leading to the abandonment of the Republic’s territorial claim to Northern Ireland, we would never have witnessed Paisley’s subsequent eye-watering trip to Dublin.

And above all, if Trimble had not been persuaded of the need to provide an alternative political route for republicans seeking a way out of conflict – a decision branded by Paisley as the ultimate in a long line of sell-outs – there may well have been no peace at all.

History, he argues, will draw its own verdict. Now ‘the Doc’ is himself fading out, the continuity between the two is, perhaps, all the more pronounced.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty