Described as a man with whom no one had an easy working relationship, David Trimble’s leadership style may have been somewhat unorthodox but secured a legacy of peace in Northern Ireland; an opportunity he was not going to let pass him by.
Staunchly opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement, the 1974 power-sharing proposal of the British and Irish governments, David Trimble cut a political figure few would have believed would collect a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in brokering peace in Northern Ireland over two decades later.
The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon once famously described the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. Ultimately though, the potential impact of a power-sharing agreement was not lost on the former academic. Indeed, Trimble’s switch from wrecker to worker of power-sharing can be boiled down to his desire to ensure his was a legacy remembered.
Born in Bangor, County Down, Trimble’s early career trajectory was not towards politics, although those close to him recount the ease at which he headed meetings and his comfort in strategically directing others. He studied law at Queen’s University Belfast, qualifying as a barrister before joining the university’s staff, initially as a law lecturer but moving on to become Assistant Dean of Law, a senior lecturer, and, finally, head of the department of commercial and property law. Trimble would retain his links to the university as an honorary graduate and professor.
He entered politics at a relative extreme, finding a home in the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party, a hard-line splinter from the UUP, led by William Craig, with links to loyalist paramilitaries, and which was initially wholly opposed to power-sharing with nationalists. When the party disintegrated in 1977, Trimble, the opportunist, quietly joined the UUP and quickly declared his interest in the UUP’s MP seat for Upper Bann, vacated through the death of Harold McCusker in 1989.
Ideologically and politically steadfast in his own outlook, Trimble clashed with then-party leader James Molyneaux, who favoured integration over devolution. Trimble’s involvement in contentious Orange Order parades, particularly the Drumcree stand-off, and images of him hand-in-hand with the late Ian Paisley on Carleton Street, Portadown, boosted his popularity amongst grassroots unionists and saw him elevated to party leader in 1995. Conversely, it became a defining image which ossified in nationalist public memory.
Trimble, to many people’s surprise, almost immediately used his position of power to initiate discussions with his political opponents. Having witnessed cycles of violence and been involved in peace talks for over two decades, the UUP leader wanted his leadership to be one remembered as making a difference, but not at any cost.
He maintained an arm’s length relationship with the SDLP’s John Hume and although recognised as the first unionist leader since the 1920s to negotiate with Sinn Féin, Trimble refused to speak directly to Gerry Adams for almost a year of the talks process. It was not until 2000 that he shook his hand.
Channelled towards a deal by then British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Trimble pushed through opposition, much of which came from within his own party, to drive unionism’s support of the Good Friday Agreement, a stance which would later be recognised as political suicide.
David Kerr began working with Trimble in spring 1996, originally as a personal assistant but rising to Director of Communications in a short space of time, before being officially registered as a SPAD in June 1998.
He describes Trimble as a “complicated” character. “He was a difficult person to work with because he was so driven and so intelligent. Ideologically, and politically, he knew what he wanted to do and he had very strong views on what needed to be done in this country to get a settlement,” recounts Kerr.
“He had been in and around political initiatives in the 70s and 80s, seeing them crash and burn and he knew that when he got the opportunity to be leader in 1995, he had to make the best of it and go for it.
“He was a man in a hurry, a man who had huge levels of personal energy, and a man who was very, very work focused. He was a seven-days-a week man because he knew that it was a business in which you had to move decisively, and you had to move quickly.”
Kerr expresses an opinion – one that many unionists have now come to believe – that despite opposition at the time and since, the Good Friday Agreement represented a good deal for unionism. Trimble was extremely principled and, through the three strands, achieved his primary objectives of securing the consent principle and devolution; amending Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution; establishing north-south cooperation in a way that did not threaten unionism; and establishing British-Irish institutions.
However, Trimble struggled under the campaign of opposition led by the more charismatic Ian Paisley. Areas of intense contention such as policing, decommissioning, and prisoner releases were seized upon by the populist opportunists of that era, who were able to exploit the emotion around those subjects, meaning that the constitutional benefits secured by Trimble were often overlooked.
“David was not a natural communicator in the sense of a populist activist,” says Kerr, adding: “He was not someone who would stand on a soapbox and captivate a crowd with populist rhetoric in the way that Ian Paisley could. He did not do small talk but that was his style. When it came to writing a speech or an article, invariably he would want to write out a list of points he felt needed made and he did not have any time for colour or flamboyance.”
Kerr expresses his respect for Trimble who, despite having achieved his political and constitutional objectives through the Good Friday Agreement, projected the future political obstacles associated with policing and decommissioning. “We had to break the cycle of failed talks initiatives and renewed violence and David knew that. We had a decision to make, and we decided that there would not be a better deal politically and constitutionally.”
Despite his Nobel Peace Prize recognition and his position as First Minister, Trimble’s leadership faltered under increased pressure from Paisley, as well as delayed action on decommissioning by the Provisional IRA, an area in which Trimble felt Blair and Ahern had failed to apply appropriate pressure and honour their previous commitments.
In 2005, following a series of Assembly suspensions and a disastrous Westminster election, where he lost his own seat and from which the party has still not recovered electorally, Trimble resigned as leader, citing that Blair and Ahern had indulged republicans and given them too much time.
He was quickly elevated to the House of Lords, joining the Conservatives shortly after. Prior to his death, Trimble had been a vocal opponent of the Northern Ireland Protocol, believing that it undermined the Good Friday Agreement.
Mourners at his funeral on 1 August 2022 heard how he was a man of “considerable strength of character and integrity” who “saved many lives and allowed a generation to grow up in relative peace”.
He is survived by his wife Daphne, daughters Victoria and Sarah and sons Richard and Nicholas.