Former Ulster Unionist leader oscillated between gauche inability to relate to others and emotionally intelligent generosity
When it was known that Martin McGuinness had just days to live, he received a letter from David Trimble which said much about the former Ulster Unionist leader’s character.
Lord Trimble wrote to the former IRA commander – who as a Sinn Fein negotiator had become one of his key interlocutors in the years of post-Good Friday Agreement talks – in the warm terms normally reserved for a party colleague or friend.
Then a Conservative peer, Lord Trimble wrote that "on reflection, I thought it behoved me, as the first minister when we first achieved devolution to the Assembly created by the Good Friday Agreement some 18 years ago, to say how much we appreciated all that you did to make that happen. In doing that you reached out to the unionist community in a way some of them were reluctant to reach out to you”.
He told Mr McGuinness that "I and my colleagues believed that you were indispensable". Reflecting then, as now, in a period where devolution had collapsed, he added: "There are many today, as we sit with the clock ticking down to the deadline for getting the institutions up and running again, who think that if you were at the helm, we would face the prospect with greater optimism."
It was an act, not only of unusual generosity from one political foe to another, but a sign of Trimble’s capacity for warmth and emotional intelligence, even though there were countless examples during his career when he appeared to lack the people skills necessary to succeed in politics.
There was implicit, in such a letter, an act of very personal forgiveness. Lord Trimble’s close friend and fellow Queen’s University law lecturer Edgar Graham had been murdered by the IRA in 1983. Dermot Nesbitt, a future UUP minister, had been standing beside the 29-year-old rising star of unionism when two gunmen shot him twice in the head and accomplices started rushing around to aid their escape.
Mr Nesbitt went into the law faculty where he met the future UUP leader, telling him: “It’s Edgar.” It was Trimble who rushed up the stairs and called the ambulance. In the following days, he was enraged by the university’s initial reluctance to say anything about one of its staff having been slain in cold blood.
Yesterday, QUB historian Lord Bew, a close confidante of Trimble around the time of the Agreement, recalled: “Edgar was a big part of his life. I have memories of him standing with Edgar Graham. His murder was very significant to him. He said that if Edgar had lived, he’d have been leader rather than himself.”
Trimble’s capacity to grasp the big picture and lead unionist opinion decisively was seen again as recently as two years ago. By then, he was an elderly man. When John Hume died two years ago, I rang Lord Trimble who spoke with appropriate gravitas and affection towards a former opponent with whom he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Not all unionists are fondly disposed towards Hume, but Trimble said that unionism should recognise the positive contribution that the former SDLP leader made to Northern Ireland, noting in particular his resolute opposition to violence. He said: “It would be a mistake for unionism today, in the aftermath of Hume’s death, to be anything other than recognising his positive contribution.”
He made a comment, which although not inappropriate, was more political, but immediately retracted it, saying it was not the time for political disagreement.
Six months earlier, Lord Trimble had visited Mr Hume’s deputy, Seamus Mallon, in his final days. The two men had shared – often testily – office as first and deputy first minister, but had also taken part in a symbolic act of solidarity when they walked together through the village of Poyntzpass in 1998 to visit the families of a Protestant and a Catholic who had been murdered by loyalists.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood yesterday recalled Trimble going to visit Mallon in the days before his death “and Seamus was very appreciative of that act of generosity”.
Paradoxically, Trimble could be haplessly insensitive – both with colleagues and opponents. He was not unaware of his shortcomings, some of which stemmed from his intuitive shyness. His biographer, Dean Godson, wrote that "Trimble could, by his own admission, often be awkward and gauche in his dealings with his parents, peers and the outside world generally”.
Remembering his upbringing, he once said that "like a lot of Ulster Protestant males, father was emotionally illiterate. He told me I was 'handless' (clumsy and uncoordinated), which was true, but telling you as much doesn't help."
This side of Trimble often undermined his hard work in other areas. In 1997, he went to the Labour Party conference, a symbolic shift in relations with New Labour under Tony Blair. Grasping the significance of cultivating the incoming party of power in London, Trimble’s words at the conference fringe event were fine.
Afterwards, he was invited by the newspaper executive, David Montgomery, then of the Mirror Group and a fellow native of Bangor, to dine with him and senior Labour figures such as Mo Mowlam. Trimble declined, saying he had another commitment. But when Montgomery got to the dining room, he found Trimble alone. A second invitation to join the newspaperman’s table, by then containing shadow chancellor Gordon Brown, was declined by a UUP leader who said “I’m pretty happy here”. As the night went on, Brown invited Trimble to the table, as did Margaret Beckett – but the Upper Bann MP wasn’t for moving.
On another infamous occasion, Trimble prompted a diplomatic incident when he walked off stage in Belfast while US President Bill Clinton was speaking. Politicians and the media speculated as to whether it was a calculated snub or if he was unwell. Instead, he had a flight to catch to Italy and the president was running late, making him fearful of missing his plane. When he whispered this to an incredulous Tony Blair, the Prime Minister offered him a lift back on his RAF flight, but the offer was declined.
Trimble could also misread the mood, not just of a room, but of his electorate. When, in 1999, he made the tiny Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment his first choice of ministries, it was with a clear purpose in mind. Not only was the idea of a republican minister for the economy repugnant to some unionists because the IRA had deliberately sought to wreck the economy through bombing commercial targets, but it was a key ministry for north-south co-operation and Trimble wanted to have his hand on that tiller.
But that opened up the Department of Education to Sinn Fein, which appointed Martin McGuinness to the ministry, prompting dismay among many pro-Agreement unionists that an IRA man should be in charge of their children’s education. Years later, Trimble admitted that it may have been a mistake.
The austere, prickly side of Trimble, which saw him storm off a broadcast interview or fail to keep his colleagues appraised of what he was doing even when they may have been supportive, was not one which Lord Bew says he experienced.
He said there was an intellectual capacity to his actions which meant that “there was always something else going on in his mind” – whether in his support for Vanguard leader Bill Craig’s offer to share power with the SDLP in the 1970s or his oblique praise in 1980s pamphlets for James Craig’s talks with Michael Collins in the 1920s.
There was also a deeper respect between Trimble and some of those he worked closely with, Lord Bew said there was “a genuine bond between him and Bertie Ahern” and “a deep underlying respect” for Mallon.
Trimble’s flaws were often unmissable, but his intellect was exceptional and few Northern Ireland politicians face down the hatred of their own side as he did. One question is compelling: Given how far and how decisively he moved unionism, despite personality traits which undermined his objectives, had he not had these shortcomings and been a smooth operator like Clinton or Blair, what might this rare political talent have done?