Extraordinary cross-section of mourners a sign of the esteem in which former first minister was held
Edward Carson was buried in St Anne’s Cathedral after a state funeral, his remains having been borne to Belfast on a Royal Navy destroyer and then processed through the streets of behind the RUC band.
James Craig was entombed beside Parliament Buildings, the parliament which represented the country whose birth he had overseen, his flag-draped coffin having been carried through the Stormont Estate on a gun carriage. But the grandeur of how Northern Ireland’s founding fathers were buried unmistakably contrasted with the dignified simplicity of David Trimble’s funeral and burial.
The man who undid some of the errors of those who built Northern Ireland, and who in the process made errors of his own, went to his final resting place mourned by the powerful, but with few of the adornments which mark the passing of a statesman.
The coffin of the 12th leader of the UUP, whose great hero was Craig, was not flag-draped to mark it as that of a man whose life’s labour was to retain the Union symbolised in the Union Flag. Instead, there was an arrangement of white flowers, marking his role in bringing peace.
Like Craig, he was a Presbyterian. Like Craig, he was also a pragmatist — where Craig had advocated sacrificing three Ulster counties to secure a strong unionist majority for the state, Trimble accepted republicans in government while the IRA continued to murder, accepted the release of paramilitary prisoners and agreed to the end of the RUC because he believed the twin goals of peace and securing the Union were more important.
Without those concessions, Lord Trimble would have had fewer enemies but also fewer surprising friends.
Mourners began filling into Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church more than an hour before the funeral was due to begin. In an unusual design, the seating in the 1960s building is laid out in a U-shape similar to that in the Assembly which was the product of the 1998 agreement.
One of the few ornamentations at the funeral was The Prince of Denmark March, played not by an orchestra or military band but on the organ of his local church, to mark the entry of Lord Trimble’s family, and then his coffin, into the church.
Traditional Victorian hymns — I Heard the Voice of Jesus say, For All the Saints Who From Their Labour’s Rest, and O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go — alongside Biblical readings reflected the beliefs and values of the Ulster Presbyterianism into which he was born and to which he remained faithful, even though, much like his politics, his once fundamentalist religious beliefs mellowed.
The congregation represented an extraordinary cross-section of British, Irish and Northern Irish society — the powerful, the once-powerful, the outsiders who for a while became insiders, the former enemies, current enemies and a few babies whose cries did not disrupt but were a reminder of the future which motivated the man being mourned.
Grey hair and bald heads predominated. These were many of the people — some prominent, some unseen — without whom the agreement would never have been born, or would have died in its infancy.
Some of those present had made sacrifices to be there. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood took two flights to get back from a family holiday in the Mediterranean, a gesture deeply appreciated by the Ulster Unionists aware of what had happened.
Secretary of State Shailesh Vara flew back from Uganda. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern flew from closer to home — a family holiday in Kerry — but was one of the most welcome visitors at the service.
Lord Trimble’s biographer, Lord Godson, said the arrival of Ahern in office in 1997 as a “modernising Fianna Fail Taoiseach” was “a key building block of peace” because he recognised that international law conflicted with the Republic’s claim on Northern Ireland and that a lasting settlement was necessary.
Speaking of Lord Trimble, Lord Godson said: “He would be delighted that Bertie Ahern was here today, and I know that he would wish to acknowledge his salient part in the key constitutional provisions of the Belfast Agreement”.
When leaving the church, Ahern affectionately patted the coffin as he passed. Later, he hugged Daphne Trimble. His presence was a visible reminder of how warm north-south relations once were, how rare was Ahern’s understanding of unionism, and how chilly unionism’s relationship with Dublin now is.
Speaking with a Trimbleistic frankness, Lord Godson noted in the presence of the representatives of the Irish and American governments that those governments “did not always have unionist interests at heart”.
He addressed today’s most divisive political issue, saying: “David viewed the protocol as fundamentally subversive of the key provision of the Belfast Agreement, the consent principle.
“Be clear: He did not envisage the consent principle as a minimalistic concept applying only to the final stage of the transfer of sovereignty arising out of any future border poll, but as applying to all major changes in the structure of that agreement.”
But Lord Godson was not some fawning sycophant; he made clear that the former Ulster Unionist leader could be “thran, even spiky” and said “he could be irritable, even ill-tempered”. But those qualities, he said, were of little consequence when set against his intellect and his ability to see events in their fullness.
By his presence as the chief eulogiser, Lord Godson embodied Lord Trimble’s remarkable, almost reckless, open-mindedness. When the then UUP leader agreed to cooperate with the then Daily Telegraph leader writer on telling his life story, he was aware that Dean Godson had been sharply critical of him. But, while still an Upper Bann MP and MLA, he chose that writer even though more sympathetic individuals were interested.
Writing in the 1,000-page biography Himself Alone, the author said that they’d had “some memorable rows”.
He reflected: “I regard it as little short of amazing that a practising politician would entrust such a work to someone whose natural sympathies lay with the main internal critics of his political handiwork.
“It is a sign of two qualities for which few detractors, whether nationalist or unionist, give him enough credit: his essential fair-mindedness and almost school-masterly patience.”
Lord Godson observed that “like WT Cosgrave in the Irish free state, David stayed in office long enough to force his anti-treaty opponents to play the political game within the revised rules that he himself has set”.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, now preparing his party to accept him entering government as deputy first minister to Michelle O’Neill, was among those watching on.
On the death of Lord Carson in 1935, The Times wrote: “In Lord Carson of Duncairn…a great figure disappears from public life.” Even most of David Trimble’s critics — some of whom treated him shamefully in life — would accept that the same is true of the former first minister.
Within their lifetimes, both of these men maintained the Union when it was under threat, but the ways in which they did so, and the nature of their departures, could scarcely have been more different.