David Trimble was not expected to win the leadership of the UUP in September 1995. All the smart money was on John Taylor to coast it, with some betting on Ken Maginnis to pass him on the inside in the last lap.
And when Trimble did win — a 466-333 majority over Taylor — it didn’t take long for the rumours to start (some generated from within the DUP) that it was his hand-in-hand jig with Ian Paisley at the end of a Garvaghy Road parade a few weeks earlier which secured his surprise victory.
When I put this to Trimble in 2015 he replied: “Some told me after the meeting that the other candidates (Maginnis, Taylor, Martin Smyth and William Ross) had contented themselves by telling everyone what great chaps they were; whereas I gave them a speech about the issues that we were going to be confronted with and the decisions we were going to have to make.
“And I also said the party was going to have to face the issue of inter-party talks (this was a year after the IRA ceasefire) and that would be one of the most difficult decisions we would ever have to take.
“I also said that I would go anywhere to sell the Ulster Unionist Party. And I said that deliberately because I saw the way (Jim) Molyneaux had got himself into a straitjacket by saying he wouldn’t go to Dublin or do this or do that. I just wanted to be free from all those constraints.”
David Trimble was that rare thing in unionism — someone who played the long game.
During the Sunningdale crisis in May 1974 he had been very close to William Craig and Vanguard (considered more hardline than the DUP and Paisley) and was a key background player during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike from May 14-28. Yet he recognised quickly that while the strike had brought down Brian Faulkner and the Assembly, unionism had nothing to put in its place.
That’s why he supported Craig’s decision to back a voluntary coalition deal with the SDLP less than a year later — a move that split Vanguard, destroyed Craig’s political career and pushed Trimble to the sidelines.
By the time he became UUP leader 20 years later the memory of that post-Sunningdale period was still uppermost in his mind. He didn’t want the UUP to just drift along as Molyneaux had allowed it to drift along.
Molyneaux argued that he had kept the party together through some very difficult periods, keeping it ahead of the DUP in every election other than the European ones. But he also told me Trimble had destroyed the UUP after 1995 because he had forced it to “take a clear-cut decision on an issue that was damaging for unionism and potentially fatal for the party itself”.
I asked Trimble why it had been so difficult to sell what he viewed as the obvious benefits of the Good Friday Agreement.
He replied: “You’ve got to bear in mind the 25 years of marginalisation, of defeat politically again and again for unionism and some of those people had been around for 25 years — like Molyneaux, Ross and Smyth — and I think the iron had got into their soul.
“Also, if they were to concede that if this (GFA) was possible and could be done, the question might be asked of them why it hadn’t been done in the previous 25 years.
“And of course, some of them remember back to 1975, when they could have done a deal with the SDLP — a better deal than the 1998 deal. Back then it was Smyth and Enoch Powell who sank that deal.
“I did remind them that we had a better deal in 1975 and didn’t take it. I also told them that we had got a better deal (now) than would have been the case had we stayed out of the talks process.”
That train of thought — and the tendency to dismiss internal opponents — underpinned his entire strategy from September 1995 to November 2003, when he was still trying to keep an increasingly fractious party together after the second Assembly election had seen the UUP eclipsed by the DUP.
He had once referred to “not doing a Faulkner”. Some people thought he meant not pushing unionism the step too far Faulkner had done with the Council of Ireland. What I think he meant was he wouldn’t do what Faulkner had done in January 1974, when he resigned as UUP leader after losing a crucial vote.
For Trimble, the ultimate risk was always going to be pushing beyond occasional defeats in the pursuit of ultimate victory. Which he kept on doing until June 2005, when he lost his parliamentary seat in Upper Bann.
He was not an easy man to deal with, even for those who were supporting him. They knew he was a risk taker and they knew, too, he would take huge personal, political and party risks without really working through the consequences.
He pushed away some who urged caution. He pushed people like Donaldson and Foster away when it might have made more strategic sense to put an arm round their shoulders. But he feared, I think, time wasn’t on the side of the GFA and if it wasn’t nailed down— “constructive ambiguities” included — it would be destroyed. He had to keep on pushing and risk-taking.
He knew Molyneaux’s 16 years of leadership had left the UUP in exactly the same place he had inherited it.
Had he had a different psychological make-up I don’t think the GFA would ever have been concluded. That’s praise in the eyes of some; criticism in the eyes of others.
Northern Ireland is, while not perfect, certainly a better place than it was in September 1995.
There are many, many people alive today who would not be had the Agreement not been concluded.
That in itself is a legacy of which he could be proud.
I also think he provided unionism with opportunities which had not existed before, moments when it could have coalesced around a coherent, forward-thinking strategy and built new friendships globally. That we failed to do so is not his fault.
My final question to him in August 2014 was, do you think history will be kind to you? “I was at a dinner party a few years ago when one of the guests, a writer, said that history wouldn’t be kind to former Secretary of State John Reid. Another guest replied: ‘but that’s because you will be writing the history’ “.
That reply is, of course, so David Trimble. For all of his thranness (he and I had more than one squabble) and his social awkwardness, Trimble was still head and shoulders above every other unionist leader I have known.
Indeed, there are some around today who could learn a lot from his concerns that unionism too often jumped or knee-jerked before preparing its alternatives.