David Trimble knew he was seriously ill when he and Bertie Ahern spent one last moment together at Queen’s University Belfast last month. The two men who, along with others, had helped bring about the Good Friday Agreement, were sitting across from each other in a private room, deep in conversation.
During the meeting, the frail Trimble informed Ahern that he was ill and likely to worsen in the coming months. They looked into each other’s eyes and lit up – a solid friendship born out of Northern Ireland’s bloody past, still just as strong at the end.
“It was masculine, it was face to face with the realities of life and he felt confident talking to me. He was able to tell me that he was in trouble, that everything was going wrong,” Ahern said.
This very moment and the sincere look they gave each other was captured on camera.
“It was emotional,” the former Taoiseach said. Sunday Independent, “I knew that when I spoke, it would be the last time I could say anything to him.”
Later, when Ahern was leaving the university, he turned to Trimble, extended his hand and said: “I know this will be a difficult time, I wish you all the best and I will pray for you.”
This was to be their last conversation together and the end of a friendship that the Border did not interfere with.
A few days before this death, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to contact Trimble. He asked his former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to see if the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party would answer the call. But he was late.
“On Monday morning I told Jonathan that a call was not possible, but a letter or note would be greatly appreciated,” said David Campbell, a friend of Trimble and his former chief of staff.
Later that day, the 77-year-old father of four died in an Ulster hospital. He didn’t get the months he hoped for and didn’t go on one last vacation with his wife Daphne, as he told Ahern he wanted.
Instead, the original First Minister of Northern Ireland spent the last few weeks of his life reflecting on his contribution to peace, politics and relations on the island of Ireland.
“We were hoping to meet for lunch in a few weeks, but that didn’t happen, I wanted some of us to make a fuss about it,” Campbell said. “I will never forget how he was driven by the fact that he did not want his children’s children to ever experience what he and they did during the Troubles.”
The most significant event was that last public appearance at Queen’s, where he ended his career in public service in the very place where it began, and where he said goodbye.
In April, the former professor of law at the university for 21 years accepted an appointment as professor emeritus and agreed to allow a commission for a portrait of him by artist Colin Davidson to hang permanently in the Great Hall. It now sits next to a picture of Senator George Mitchell, another key figure in the peace talks.
There were previous attempts to convince him to take the position of honorary professor, but he refused due to his busy schedule.
But this time it was different. When he accepted this, as well as the annual lecture in his own name, he was moved to tears. He knew what it meant to leave behind a permanent legacy in the place that had shaped him.
“I’m very pleased to be here, it’s quite emotional for me to be here,” he said in a strained voice when the plans were announced.
This was part of a seven-month project at the university devised by the President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Professor Ian Greer and its Director of Public Affairs, Ryan Feeney, who felt that Trimble’s long association with the university and his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland was essential. be recognized.
When they learned that he was unwell, the event was rescheduled.
It was clear to those present last month that Trimble was ill. However, there was “a sense of joy, recognition and nostalgia”.
“There was a risk that he might not live even the whole summer, that he might not see either September or October. It made the event even more poignant,” said David Kerr, former Trimble Special Advisor, whose touching performance brought tears to most of those present at the event.
“My last moment with David was when I shook his hand, wishing him a safe home. I knew he was ill, but I didn’t think I would see him for the last time,” he told reporters. sunday independent.
During the event, Professor Greer said that “Trimble’s strong legacy is the world our students enjoy today, many of whom were born after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”
In a video message, former US President Bill Clinton said: “Of all the tribute we can give you, the greatest testimony to you is the fact that today an entire generation in Belfast and across Northern Ireland has grown up outside the shadow of hatred and violence.”
Blair said generations “who walk through these walls and see David’s portrait will remember the legacy of a passionate and determined peacemaker.”
This was the path he walked with Ahern, who spoke from the bottom of his heart and without notes that night.
“You are a brave man,” he said without taking his eyes off Trimble. “You did the right thing, but it took a strong man to do it. I honor you, greet you and thank you for your friendship.”
Davidson, an internationally renowned artist, believed that Trimble “saw what no one else could see” during those difficult days of the peace negotiations.
He hopes that those who see his painting in the Royal Museum now and in the years to come will look into Trimble’s eyes “to see what he could see” – a bitter reminder of that vision and the need to look forward, not backward.