One of the most prominent domestic critics, David Trimble, said that the former First Minister was a “great leader” who, as history has shown, was right in most of his important decisions.
Former South Antrim MP David Burnside said the Good Friday Agreement was a key union victory that the DUP still cannot publicly acknowledge but knows to be true as it uses the Agreement to challenge the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In 2003, Mr. Burnside joined his fellow MPs Geoffrey Donaldson and Martin Smith in renouncing the UUP whip and calling on Mr. Trimble to change the party’s policies or resign. At the same time, Arlene Foster stepped down as a party officer.
In response, Mr. Trimble suggested that they withdraw from the party, stating that “we cannot be expected to put up with the situation of having a party within a party indefinitely.”
Previously, these two men had a much warmer relationship. Mr. Burnside and Lord Trimble were colleagues in the Vanguard, Bill Craig’s far-right trade union party, some of whose members later turned out to be much more moderate and pragmatic trade union activists.
Mr Burnside, senior head of public relations in London, said he voted for John Taylor in the 1995 Ulster Unionist Party leadership contest, but in later years he worked closely with Mr Trimble to explain the trade union movement the rest of the UK and the world. .
Mr Burnside told the Belfast Telegraph that he respected Lord Trimble’s predecessor, Lord Molino, because “Jim consolidated through the most difficult times. But he did not promote the Union. Trimble realized that it had to change. He went to America and talked to leading writers in Fleet Street, which I helped.
“The DUP doesn’t do that and the trade union movement needs to get back to it. There should be a union office in Washington.”
The former MP said: “He was a great leader. I didn’t always agree with him in his judgments and timing. But he took the risk, and history proved him right.
“I was very supportive of the Accord – I was skeptical at some points – but I never go back to supporting it. I think history will prove that it was right – the South’s rejection of the constitutional requirement, the principle of consent, decommissioning.
Mr Burnside said he never voted against him in any of the tense Ulster Unionist Council meetings in which the leader managed to cling to the lead by a narrow margin. “I never went to DUP. I think Jeffrey and Arlene got it wrong,” he said.
Mr Burnside said he was “skeptical about decommissioning, believing that the monitoring body set up in the early 2000s was inadequate, but “I think he [Trimble] probably was right. We must be big enough to recognize this. Trimble was right.
“All the debate about the Northern Ireland Protocol proves the benefit of the Belfast Agreement. The Unionists are better off with this Agreement than without it. The DUP can’t admit it, but it’s true.”
Mr Burnside recalled the outrageous way in which some DUP supporters and others physically attacked Lord Trimble and his family.
“They were almost driven into the ground; if the RUC were not there, their lives could be in danger. DUP’s belligerence against Trimble was unsavory.”
He said that if the Agreement failed it would be bad for Northern Ireland and bad for the trade union movement: “The opponents of the Agreement at the time could have blown it all up, but that would have meant we wouldn’t have a constitutional change from the south or a better cooperation from the south – although relations are terrible now, given the way they behave.
“Trimble called it right. We took the hill. He was very divisive. He had a temper, he could be grumpy or leave in a bad mood, but is it better now for the union population? Yes.
“With the world that we experienced after the Accord, despite all its imperfections, it is still here and is a workable basis for governance. DUP is pudding proof; they are supporters of the Agreement in every respect.”
Mr Burnside said his ongoing criticism of Lord Trimble’s actions was because he agreed with the replacement of the RUC by the PSNI: “A little reform in the police would be done. I think we could stand firmly on the name and emblem. But there was a lot of pressure on him from the nationalists.”
Mr. Burnside dismissed claims by some opponents of the Agreement and former RUC officers that the IRA was close to being defeated militarily and therefore the concessions in the Agreement were unnecessary.
“I’ve heard this for a long time. I’m pretty militarist, but they [republicans] had to be drawn in; we had to change the attitude of the south. The Cold War is over… Everything has changed.
“Understandably, there was a lot of skepticism about decommissioning.
“Terrorist organizations should have put an end to their campaigns, but there was so much crime. The call could have fallen apart on Good Friday. It wouldn’t be a repeat of 1972, but the IRA could still go on and still have room for the strange spectacle.
“His appeals and his judgment were pretty good. He was let down by Blair and Patten’s report. [into policing]. But overall, he did the right thing.”