Amid the deserved lauding of Lord Trimble’s courage as an architect of the Good Friday Agreement, there’s been a persistent narrative about his personality: “short-tempered”, “prickly”, “awkward”, “lacking social skills” and of course that old favourite only applied to unionism, “hardline”.
The shorthand is of someone who did the right thing almost against their will and nature. Of a man with few likeable qualities who nevertheless in death must be accorded our begrudging admiration and thanks.
Many of these observations amount to crass caricature rather than a full character assessment. Anyone can be fractious, but they’ll exhibit many other qualities, quirks and traits. This was undoubtedly the case with Lord Trimble, as I discovered in various in-depth interviews.
One encounter, at UUP HQ in Glengall Street, Belfast, took place days before the crunch Assembly election in June 1998. Despite being under immense pressure, Trimble moved easily from astute political analysis to anecdotes of family holidays, driving through Europe. He was a major player in the peace process, but he was also a father-of-four with a life away from the public eye.
Trimble’s love of opera was known, but his wife, Daphne, revealed to me he was a huge Elvis fan. He read Brian Moore novels and enjoyed fine wine. Recently his UUP councillor son, Nicholas, told me Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks were favourites too. He spoke warmly of a dad engulfed by political drama, yet also one whom he could talk to about anything. It was quite the childhood — protesters outside their home shouting “Trimble the traitor” and the White House on the phone.
But the idea of Trimble as the brusque, terse and difficult peacemaker took hold from the off. When he and John Hume appeared with U2’s Bono in that iconic, arms-raised photograph at the Waterfront, the view even then was that Trimble was a reluctant, gauche participant while Hume was a natural showman.
The gross over-simplification ignored the different political context each man found himself in. Hume, for all his greatness, could afford to relax. Nationalism was more or less 100% behind the GFA. Trimble could say no such thing about the unionist community. It was bitterly divided over the proposals, with many fiercely opposed to Sinn Fein in government. The DUP were breathing down Trimble’s neck, there were serious misgivings within his party and senior voices across the unionist spectrum lined up against him.
The GFA saw Trimble fighting for his political life, and in the years that followed facing serious threats to his actual life. He was frequently the target of mob intimidation. The morning after he was assaulted at the Upper Bann election count, Daphne graphically described to me the cuts and bruises covering his body.
He lived under terrorist threat for decades. His Queen’s University colleague in law and rising unionist star, Edgar Graham, had been gunned down outside the university in 1983. Robert Bradford MP was assassinated in 1981. Would it have been any wonder if his temper occasionally frayed? Nobody cut him any slack. The IRA’s feet-dragging on decommissioning handed ammunition to his greatest enemies in unionism. Republicanism effectively finished off his Stormont career, just as it went on to rout the SDLP.
The observations about Lord Trimble’s personality come from the old cliche pile — where nationalists are the life and soul of the party, ready with a genial quip and a line or two of verse, dour, taciturn unionists are instinctively wary of anything suggesting lightness of touch. Nationalists are dreamers, poets and raconteurs. Unionists are firebrands, bigots and backward. All of them. At the same time. Paisley, Faulkner, Molyneux, Trimble, Robinson, Foster, Poots, Donaldson — all hardline. The only unionist who isn’t is one who agrees with nationalism.
Yet, Trimble built a friendship with Bertie Ahern, as evidenced by their rapport at a recent QUB function for his portrait unveiling. Anyone considering his character should consult his letter to a dying Martin McGuinness, which showed the understanding Trimble had of the forces at work during the peace negotiations as well as the personalities. Given his awareness of nuances, some ought to have listened when he said the Northern Ireland Protocol broke the GFA. Using his death to wilfully misrepresent his views on that is exactly part of the delusion his career argued against. Here, we should know by now that it’s better to face hard truths like Trimble did. And find a way through.
Back then, the rest of our politicians were hardly natural wits and raconteurs. Now? Let’s not get carried away with the idea that today’s politicians are likeable, fluent, sure-footed, affable and co-operative. There isn’t one that hasn’t had their share of ghastly PR gaffes.
The public see through even the limited media training that politicians undergo. People know when a question is being dodged and aren’t fooled by waffle. Performance is no replacement for substance.
Glibness was anathema to Trimble, an academic steeped in the traditions of the law. Sometimes you need someone to cut through the bluff, double-talk and obfuscation. He knew that detail, rigour and truth were what counted in the end, if peace was to stand any chance.
There wasn’t any artifice with Trimble, which is why those unionists who voted yes to the agreement did so. He had a stake in the narrative of compromise and building a shared future. He recognised in McGuinness someone who had a similar commitment and role.
There’s been much talk about how history will remember Lord Trimble, many imagining it kindly. Yet earlier this year, he wasn’t even mentioned at a St Patrick’s Day event in Washington to laud John Hume’s role in peace-making. There’s no guarantee that history will do anything in particular, least of all be fair or just. It is, as they say, written by the winners.
The best we can hope for is that there is some room not just to record the necessary courage of this truculent lawyer who led from the front, but also how it was exactly his multi-faceted and complex personality that enabled him to take all the risks for peace no one thought possible.