26 July 2022

David Trimble was a Unionist great – but his legacy is under threat thanks to the Protocol

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Lord Trimble, who died yesterday aged 77, forged a worldwide reputation and changed Northern Ireland profoundly. The former first minister’s achievements look particularly impressive today, as pro-Union politicians struggle to influence events in London and Brussels that affect their future in the United Kingdom.

David Trimble was a law lecturer when he first came to public prominence in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, mixing an academic career with unionist politics could, quite literally, get you killed.

Trimble was at work at his desk in Queen’s University in 1983, when he heard gunshots from the streets outside. It turned out that the IRA had murdered his fellow professor, friend and Ulster Unionist colleague, Edgar Graham, shooting him in the back of the head as he walked close to the law faculty.

In his comprehensive biography of the unionist leader, Himself Alone, Dean Godson described Trimble as one of the first to react, ‘thundering up the stairs to call ambulances and the RUC’. Northern Ireland’s police force later told Trimble that he too had been a target of the IRA’s murder gangs.

Perhaps understandably, given this background, Trimble gained a reputation as a hardliner as he progressed through the ranks of Ulster unionism. He was involved in the workers’ strike of 1974 that brought down the Sunningdale Agreement, which was an early attempt to form a power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland. 

Later, in 1995, he was pictured joining hands with Ian Paisley, as Orangemen belatedly completed a march down Portadown’s Garvaghy Road, which had become a bitterly contested parade route thanks to protests by nationalist ‘residents’ groups’. Many critics interpreted this gesture as triumphalism, but Trimble later admitted he was merely keen to avoid being upstaged by a political rival.

Arguably, though, Trimble’s uncompromising image eventually helped him to sell unpalatable aspects of the Belfast Agreement to grassroots unionists, in a way that a reputed moderate would have struggled to achieve. He won the UUP’s leadership contest in 1995 and soon showed pragmatism by becoming the first unionist leader in thirty years to meet an Irish prime minister in Dublin. 

As the ‘peace process’ progressed, he was required to accept increasingly difficult concessions. He was pressurised into agreeing a ‘twin track’ approach that allowed political talks to continue without the IRA first decommissioning its weapons. And the appointment of an American, George Mitchell, as the negotiations’ chairman was presented practically as a fait accompli by John Major’s government.

The Good Friday deal will inevitably be regarded as Trimble’s main contribution to Northern Ireland’s history, but its legacy remains controversial and contested among unionists. The UUP leader asked them to accept morally difficult compromises, like the release of IRA prisoners and the disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (NI’s police force), in return for stabilising the province and requiring nationalists to effectively accept its place in the UK.

He signed the agreement in April 1998 and 71% of Northern Irish voters endorsed it the following month through a referendum.

In the intervening years, the province has remained relatively peaceful and gained a degree of prosperity, but the devolved institutions the deal created have frequently failed to operate. The parties that brokered the agreement, the UUP and the SDLP, are now marginal voices in Northern Ireland’s Assembly, while the DUP and Sinn Fein, with its close links to the IRA, dominate the political landscape.

Despite the difficulties that came after 1998, Trimble always argued that unionists gained more from the deal than they lost, because it ensured that all the relevant governments and parties were formally signed up to the ‘principle of consent’. This tenet required Northern Ireland to remain an integral part of the UK unless a majority of its people decided to join the Irish republic through a ‘border poll’.

In a book of conversations with the journalist, Frank Millar, The Price of Peace, Trimble argued that previously even the government at Westminster was committed to the principle only inconsistently. One of his goals in the Good Friday negotiations was to replace the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave the Republic of Ireland an official voice in Northern Ireland’s affairs. Trimble claimed that deal amounted to London saying, ‘We’ve changed some things without consent, but we’ll not do it again’.

It’s not surprising, then, that Trimble spent his last years, including periods when he was struggling with illness, campaigning against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he thought disregarded the principle of consent. In an essay in the book The Idea of the Union, he argued that the province’s people endorsed the Belfast Agreement only because it ensured their ‘…constitutional position within the UK could not be changed – a commitment I secured at great political cost from the British government, the Irish government, nationalist leader John Hume, and the leadership of Sinn Fein’.

‘The Protocol rips the very heart out of the (Good Friday) Agreement,’ he argued, admitting that he felt betrayed personally by a Brexit deal signed by the Conservative leader, Boris Johnson. By this point, Trimble had himself been a Conservative for many years, having joined the party in 2007 and represented them for 15 years in the House of Lords. 

The negotiations of 1998 resulted in the formation of a power-sharing Assembly at Stormont and an Executive intended to govern devolved matters in Northern Ireland. At the time of his death, these institutions were, yet again, not operating, thanks to the imposition of the Protocol that Lord Trimble bitterly opposed.

This great Ulster Unionist and conservative leader remained, to the end, a strong supporter of the Belfast Agreement. But he was adamant that it had been undermined, perhaps fatally, by a deal with the European Union that placed an internal British border down the Irish Sea. On the strength of his recent political interventions, it’s clear Lord Trimble thought that the gravest threat to his legacy was the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.