by Edward Ferrin – Chief Stormont Correspondent.
It’s easy to pass the death of David Trimble at 77 as the passing of an average politician, who served Northern Ireland in a limited and obscure function. Yet, he did change Northern Ireland in the most important way – he and John Hume were recognised in Oslo for the peace accord agreed in 1998.
Some unionist politicians making gestures of good will to the nobel peace prize winner after his death should be placed below the standards of Mr. Trimble in terms of political courage. No one can remove the fact that Trimble is the name that is associated with the rise of the DUP – had David Trimble never been elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1995, backed the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 or have become such a divisive figure by 2003, there may never have been a DUP leader called Arlene Foster or Jeffrey Donaldson.
Trimble can be accredited with handing the unionist mantle to the DUP in 2005 with the assumption that Sinn Fein and the prospect of a border poll was still limited electorally. Yet in 2022 upon his death, the DUP has now fallen behind Sinn Fein at the polls to Stormont.
David Trimble’s first entry into the divisive world of Ulster Unionist politics was while he was a member of William Craig’s Vanguard Ulster Progressive Unionist Party. He was one of the few Vanguard unionists to have supported Craig’s 1975 mood to enter into a voluntary coalition with the SDLP. It sent the early signs that he would have been prepared to share power with moderate nationalists at Stormont.
In the early 1980s, he lost two close political colleagues and close friends in the Rev. Robert Bradford MP in 1981 and fellow academic Edgar Graham MPA in 1983. Both Bradford or Graham may have become leader of the UUP by the time Trimble was elected in 1995 had they lived – the course of history and the future electoral success of the DUP may never have happened.
Upon Trimble’s ‘finest hour,’ the UUP’s demise began as soon as the 1998 assembly election came in June that year – the UUP could only muster 28 MLAs, not withstanding those within the UUP who were anti-Good Friday Agreement. Ian Paisley’s attacks on Trimble became as fierce as those he unleashed in the ’60s with his ‘O’Neill must go’ campaign, with insults of ‘traitor Trimble’ being hurled by DUP supporters and hardliners in the UKUP.
Road finally fell away for Trimble and the UUP after the bruising 2001 and 2003 polls and at the 2005 Westminster election, he lost the Upper Bann constituency to David Simpson of the DUP by about 5,000 votes – the UUP lost every seat bar North Down. The anti-Trimble rhetoric of the DUP won over the hearts and minds of the unionist electorate. The people of Upper Bann took the DUP over David Trimble – symbolic was the seismic shift within unionism – the UUP have not been as popular since.
What legacy does David Trimble leave?
He leaves Northern Ireland in 2022 still a member of the United Kingdom – a simple statement to some, but David Trimble’s entire thesis for the Belfast Agreement was its case for the union and the principle of consent. The DUP can’t admit to the public or themselves that David Trimble won the arguments for the agreement and for power-sharing.
However, he leaves the UUP in a much weaker position than in 1995. Upon his death, Doug Beattie’s team were reeling from their worst ever performance at an assembly election in May 2022. Trimble is the one word answer as to why the UUP is in a state of decline today – it is also the answer to why the DUP are where they are today also. The statement ’18 different constituency parties all in one’ is accurate to describe the UUP – Trimble’s leadership was at the mercy of divisions with anti- agreement MLAs or MPs like Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster, Peter Weir, Martin Smyth or David Burnside and with the splits between the liberal UUP like Ken Magennis or Cecil Walker and the more conservative members like Tom Elliot or William Ross (now a member of Jim Allister’s TUV).
He has also left many of our politicians in today’s arena with their very own political accomplishments, such as Arlene Foster’s tenure as First Minister and Jeffrey Donaldson’s stint as DUP leader. Arlene and Jeffrey were both leading members of the Ulster Unionist Party (including Jonathon Bell, Peter Weir and Nelson McCausland) before they defected to the DUP as Ian Paisley overtook Trimble’s party at the polls. It’s ironic that the recent history of the DUP and its internal divisions have been the result of events that took place under the leadership of David Trimble all those years ago.
It is not an understatement to say that David Trimble transformed Northern Ireland and Ulster Unionism – it will be up to the test of history to decide if his political career lost or won the case for the United Kingdom and peace in Northern Ireland. His courage as UUP leader lost him his place in elected politics and left him hidden in the House of Lords until his passing – only now may he now receive the credit he deserves.