One of David Trimble’s most prominent internal critics has said that the former First Minister was “a great leader” who history has proven to have been right in most of his major decisions.
Former South Antrim MP David Burnside said that the Good Friday Agreement was a key victory for unionism, which the DUP still cannot publicly admit but which it knows to be true as it uses the Agreement to argue against the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In 2003, Mr Burnside joined fellow MPs Jeffrey Donaldson and Martin Smyth in resigning the UUP whip and calling on Mr Trimble to change party policy or step down. At the same time, Arlene Foster resigned as a party officer.
Mr Trimble responded by suggesting they should quit the party, saying that “We can’t be expected to indefinitely put up with the situation where there is a party within a party”.
In earlier years, the two men had far warmer relations. Mr Burnside and Lord Trimble were colleagues in Vanguard — the ultra-right-wing unionist party of Bill Craig, several of whose members turned out to be far more moderate and pragmatic unionists in later life.
Mr Burnside, a senior PR executive in London, said that he had voted for John Taylor in the 1995 Ulster Unionist Party leadership contest but that in the following years he worked closely with Mr Trimble to explain unionism to the rest of the UK and the world.
Mr Burnside told the Belfast Telegraph that he had respected Lord Trimble’s predecessor, Lord Molyneaux, because “Jim consolidated during the most difficult times. But he didn’t promote the Union. Trimble realised that had to change. He went to America and went to talk to leader writers on Fleet Street, which I helped facilitate.
“The DUP doesn’t do that and unionism has to go back to that. There should be a unionist office in Washington.”
The former MP said: “He was a great leader. I didn’t always agree with him on his judgment and timing. But he took the risks and history has proved him right.
“I was very supportive of the Agreement — I was sceptical at points — but I don’t go back on supporting it at all. I think history will prove it was right — southern withdrawal of the constitutional claim, the principle of consent, decommissioning.”
Mr Burnside said that he never voted against him in any of the tight meetings of the Ulster Unionist Council in which the leader managed to cling on to the leadership by slender margins. “I never went to the DUP. I think Jeffrey and Arlene made a mistake,” he said.
Mr Burnside said that he had been “sceptical about decommissioning”, believing that the monitoring body, established in the early 2000s, was inadequate, but “I think he [Trimble] was probably right. We should be big enough to admit it. Trimble was right.
“The whole debate about the Northern Ireland Protocol proves the benefit of the Belfast Agreement. Unionists are better with this Agreement than without it. The DUP can’t admit it, but that’s the truth.”
Mr Burnside recalled the ugliness of how some DUP supporters and others had physically attacked Lord Trimble and his family.
“They were almost hammered into the ground; if the RUC hadn’t been there, their lives might have been at risk. The militancy of the DUP against Trimble was distasteful.”
He said that if the Agreement had failed, it would have been bad for Northern Ireland and bad for unionism: “Anti-Agreement unionists at the time could have unravelled the whole thing, but that would have meant we wouldn’t have had the constitutional change from the south or better cooperation from the south — although relations are now dreadful, given the way they are behaving.
“Trimble called it right. We took the high ground. He was very divisive. He had a temper and could be grumpy or go off in a mood, but is the unionist population better off now? Yes.
“With the peace we have experienced since the Agreement, for all its imperfections it’s still here and a workable basis for governing. The DUP is the proof of the pudding; they’re a pro-Agreement party in every respect.”
Mr Burnside said that his continued criticisms of Lord Trimble’s actions was around his acceptance of the RUC being replaced by the PSNI: “A bit of reform in the police would have got through. I think we could have stood firm on the name and the insignia. But there was a lot of pressure on him from the nationalist side.”
Mr Burnside dismissed the claims by some anti-Agreement unionists and former RUC officers that the IRA was close to being militarily beaten and so the concessions in the Agreement were unnecessary.
“I’d heard that for a long time. I’m pretty militaristic, but they [republicans] had to be dragged in; we had to change the attitude of the south. The cold war had ended… Things were changing.
“There was understandably lots of scepticism around decommissioning.
“Terror organisations had to bring their campaigns to an end, but there was so much criminality as well. The call could have unravelled on Good Friday. It wouldn’t have been 1972 all over again, but the IRA still could have gone on and still had the capability for the odd spectacular.
“His calls and his judgments were pretty well there. He was let down by Blair and by Patten’s report [into policing]. But overall, he got it right.”