I don’t have much to add in terms of what the life of David Trimble adds up to. The breadth of generous comment this week (including Brian’s) says more than anything I might write about the life of the man.
His times, I do know a little better. In The Irish Times Eoghan Harris was quoted saying:
“Everyone talks about the risks that John Hume took, but Hume didn’t run the same risks as Trimble did — with his own party, with the British government. He was incredibly isolated but he had the moral fortitude to stick it out.”
It’s hard to argue with that. He later, under his own byline in the News Letter, noted a question posed him by Dean Godson, Trimble’s official biographer:
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.
Irish politics is as mired in populism as London since Brexit, much of it orchestrated by Sinn Féin (Harris’ eternal bete noir) and a rising cohort of independents eager to score cheap local points off national government.
And yet, this week’s Irish Times’ editorial verdict on Trimble’s moral character and historic importance is unimpeachable:
The weakest politicians never move, never change, never meet half-way. They luxuriate in the futile comforts of dogmatic purity. That was the course chosen by Trimble’s opponents, internal and external. But he could see that compromise was the only way to secure the future for the people of Northern Ireland. And to do so was a sign of strength, not weakness.
His early dalliance with Vanguard ended when he and William Craig both espoused power sharing at a time when unionism was still smarting over the loss of Stormont even after bringing down the short lived power sharing executive there.
He got it long before the seminal paper An End To Drift correctly spelled out the dangers of unionism just saying no to everything. He knew a deal needed to be done to permanently put terror off the road.
People mention the abuse he took from loyalist paramilitaries. As I followed him down the main street in Portadown in 2005, an aide showed me where he’d been told to stop by a minibus full of paramilitaries in 2001.
But it was nothing to the onslaught he’d seen at the hands of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. After the murder of Edgar Graham at Queens he knew political moderates like Graham were prime targets.
The safest unionist politician from Provisional violence was the Reverend Ian Paisley, whose blood curdling speeches were relied on to stir the hatred they needed to sustain an ultimately fruitless struggle.
By such lights, Trimble was a moderate in Orange clothing: a natural loyalty that may well have helped to save him from a fate worse than the calumnious infamy that routinely befalls those of that tradition.
Tom Kelly writes of him:
He could be pedantic and more often took the scenic route to arrive at a juncture. His predecessor as UUP leader excelled at doing simply nothing. But Trimble had a sense of the need to do something.
Due to his working class background, he had the instincts of a grass-root loyalist but the intellect to raise the bar. He was not a visionary but he had a great sense of destiny and responsibility.
Trimble was courageous, determined and faultless in his defence of unionism and the Union. He was a scholar in a world of pugilists. But he adapted when required.
A unionist friend who was taught by him at Queens thought that he did a deal that was necessary, but although Trimble knew and understood it he couldn’t quite explain to his followers why it was important.
Perhaps it was deference (he could rise to anger quickly but was never an arrogant man)? Maybe he knew that in substance this was a surrender, but that to say so would destroy the magic of the Agreement?
Instead, his response to the men who had ripped a bloody scar through Protestant society was to remark ‘just because you have a past doesn’t mean you can’t have a future.’ His generosity was not reciprocated.
Harris’s long complaint about the lost plurality of the south might as well be considered as an affordance of the very peace that Trimble, Hume, Ahern and Blair et al brought to the island.
These days such irritations are of little consequence compared to the Troubles and the Provisionals’ long war, when a careless word or thoughtless deed could spark the ire of one cohort of killers or another.
The new generation of the provisional movement are now vying for control over southern budgets, whilst making the same false promises of unity they did back in the 1970s, only this time at a more modest price.
I guess when we talk about men like Trimble, Hume and Mallon there’s a tendency to muse on what they didn’t achieve or failed to do. “The work of giants crumbles” observes Tom McTeague.
But so is the business of democracy to rebuild, every day. If there’s something for everyone to learn from all of these great lives, I go back to that quote from our A Long Peace pamphlet in 2003:
1066 and All That tells us that the English Civil War was ‘an extremely memorable struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Romantic) and the Roundheads (Right but Repulsive).’ In future struggles, unionists need to be both right and attractive.
Trimble was right and that was enough for the time that was in it. He had neither the time, the facility nor the natural inclination to make attractive the bitter pill of prisoner releases or Patten’s reforms.
But there’s something here for nationalists (Ireland’s natural ‘cavaliers’) to learn. It’s okay being seen to be effective, imaginative and fair (as nationalism often is) it’s also important to get the big calls right.
It was to Trimble’s credit (and the substance of his enduring victory) that he called his correctly. We all owe him… And his words should burn into the consciousness of “the politicians of the possible” today.
“The dark shadow we seem to see in the distance is not really a mountain ahead, but the shadow of the mountain behind – a shadow from the past thrown forward into our future. It is a dark sludge of historical sectarianism. We can leave it behind us if we wish.”
–Nobel Peace Prize Lecture 1998, David Trimble
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