David Trimble was not expected to win the UUP lead in September 1995. All the smart money was on John Taylor to survive, with some betting on Ken Maginnis to pass him on the inside on the final lap.
and when Trimble did win – by a margin of 466-333 over Taylor – rumors soon spread (some of which originated within the DUP) that it was his jigging hand-in-hand with Ian Paisley at the end of the Garvagie Road Parade for several weeks earlier, which secured his surprise victory.
When I told Trimble about this in 2015, he replied: “Some told me after the meeting that the other candidates (Maginnis, Taylor, Martin Smith and William Ross) were content to tell everyone what great guys they are; while I spoke to them about the problems we have to face and the decisions we have to make.
“And I also said that the party would have to face the problem of inter-party negotiations (this was a year after the IRA ceasefire) and that would be one of the most difficult decisions we would ever have to make.
“I also said that I would go anywhere to sell the Ulster Unionist Party. And I said it on purpose, because I saw (Jim) Molino put a straitjacket on himself saying he wouldn’t go to Dublin, wouldn’t do this or that. I just wanted to be free from all those restrictions.”
David Trimble was that rarity in Unionism – a man who played the long game.
During the Sunningdale crisis of May 1974 he was very close to William Craig and Vanguard (who were seen as more hard-line than the DUP and Paisley) and was a key minor player during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike from 14 to 28 May. However, he quickly realized that although the strike led to the overthrow of Brian Faulkner and the Assembly, there was nothing for the union movement to replace.
That’s why, less than a year later, he backed Craig’s decision to support a self-imposed coalition with the SDLP—a move that split Vanguard, ruined Craig’s political career, and sidelined Trimble.
By the time he became the leader of the UUP 20 years later, memories of that post-Sunningdale period still dominated his memory. He didn’t want UUP to just go with the flow the way Molino allowed him to.
Molino claimed that he had kept the party together through some very difficult periods, keeping it ahead of the DUP in all but European elections. But he also told me that Trimble destroyed the UUP after 1995 because it forced it to “make a clear decision on an issue that was detrimental to the union movement and potentially fatal to the party itself.”
I asked Trimble why he had such a hard time selling what he saw as the obvious benefits of the Good Friday Agreement.
He replied: “You have to keep in mind 25 years of marginalization, political defeat over and over again for the union movement, and some of these people have been around for 25 years – like Molino, Ross and Smith – and I think the iron has sunk into their souls.
“Also, if they acknowledged that if this (GFA) was possible and could be done, then they could be asked why it hadn’t been done in the previous 25 years.
“And of course, some of them remember 1975 when they could get a deal with the SDLP – a better deal than the 1998 deal. Smith and Enoch Powell thwarted the deal at the time.
“I reminded them that we had a better deal in 1975 and we didn’t take it. I also told them that we have a better deal (now) than we would if we were not involved in the negotiation process.”
This train of thought – and the tendency to reject internal opponents – underpinned his entire strategy from September 1995 to November 2003, when he was still trying to keep the increasingly fragmented party together after the UUP eclipsed the DUP in the second Assembly elections. .
He once mentioned “not doing Faulkner”. Some people thought he meant not to go too far into unions, as Faulkner did with the Council of Ireland. I think he meant that he would not do what Faulkner did in January 1974 when he resigned as leader of the UUP, losing the decisive vote.
For Trimble, the biggest risk has always been to go beyond random losses in pursuit of ultimate victory. Which he did until June 2005, when he lost his seat in Parliament from the Upper Bann.
He was not easy to deal with, even for those who supported him. They knew that he was risk-averse, and they also knew that he would take huge personal, political and partisan risks without working through the consequences.
He repelled those who called for caution. He alienated people like Donaldson and Foster when it would have made more sense strategically to put an arm around their shoulders. But he feared, I think, that time is not on the side of the GFA, and if it is not consolidated – including “constructive ambiguities” – it will be destroyed. He had to keep pushing and taking risks.
He knew that Molino’s 16-year leadership had left the UUP in exactly the same position he had inherited it.
If he had a different mentality, I don’t think GFA would ever have been completed. This is praise in the eyes of some; criticism in the eyes of others.
Northern Ireland, while not perfect, is definitely better than it was in September 1995.
Today there are a lot of people who would not exist if the Agreement had not been concluded.
That in itself is a legacy that he could be proud of.
I also think he has given the unions opportunities that didn’t exist before, moments where they could come together around a coherent, far-sighted strategy and forge new friendships around the world. It is not his fault that we failed to do so.
My last question to him in August 2014 was: do you think history will be kind to you? “A few years ago, I was at a dinner party when one of the guests, a writer, said that history would not be kind to former Secretary of State John Reed. Another guest replied, “But that’s because you’ll be writing history.”
This answer is of course by David Trimble. For all his volatility (we’d had more than one fight) and social awkwardness, Trimble was still head and shoulders above any other union leader I knew.
Indeed, there are people today who could learn a lot from his concerns about unions jumping or twitching too often before preparing their alternatives.