Following the unveiling of a portrait of Lord Trimble by local artist Colin Davidson at Queen’s University, his former special adviser and press secretary David Kerr was asked to speak to guests. The Belfast Telegraph published the speech to mark the occasion and the significance of his remarks
I began working with David Trimble in 1996 and worked with him for six years through the most tumultuous and transformative political change this country has seen since its formation in 1921. In those years between 1996 and 2002 I could point to many highs and lows, but I’d like to share three memories and reflections of that time.
The first memory comes from a good luck card that was sent to David by a woman from the south of Ireland in early 1996.
I suspect the lady most likely didn’t know the significance of the message, but I looked at it on the windowsill of David’s Glengall Street office almost every day I was there.
The card had a quote on it from Theodore Roosevelt, who was US President in 1901. He said: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, even though chequered by failure, than to dwell in that perpetual twilight that knows not victory or defeat.”
This, as it turned out, was a core principle of David Trimble’s leadership of unionism and Northern Ireland. He would push himself and everyone around him beyond their limits almost every day in the pursuit of political progress, stability and peace.
Even though he knew the safer political option for him would always be to move after others had moved, David Trimble chose to lead, and lead he did.
The second quote that stands out for me is from John F Kennedy.
David and Seamus Mallon were on their first international trade mission as First Minister and Deputy First Minister to the US in October 1998.
They were there to promote the new Assembly and encourage US investment into Northern Ireland.
We were finishing an event at the Kennedy Centre in Boston, and I had noticed this JFK quote on a wall. When the event finished I asked David and Seamus to stand in front of it so I could take a picture of them on my very basic little 1998 camera.
They walked over to the wall and looked up at the quote, then looked at each other and turned to me smiling, as if to affirm the statement — and I took the photograph.
On the wall behind them the quote from President Kennedy in his inaugural speech in 1961 said: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration… nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But, let us begin.”
And so it was to be. David Trimble and Seamus Mallon would lead us all out of the darkness of conflict in that new fledgling Assembly, with all its imperfections and problems, with all of its Troubles-induced trauma and bitterness.
They dedicated themselves to that great project, to start the transformation of this society away from violence to one of peace building, power-sharing and progress.
So, what’s the third quote? Well, it’s one many of you will know and was always a favourite of the prophets of doom, particularly in the Irish media, during those difficult times. It was Enoch Powell’s acerbic remark that “all political careers end in failure”.
Well, I’m here tonight to say that is simply not true.
When you look at the lifetime of public service given by someone like David Trimble, you have to look at it in its entirety. You measure the totality of the achievements, the whole book — not just a few pages about an election result towards the end.
David Trimble’s contribution to politics and to peace in Northern Ireland is immense and unquestionably under-appreciated. Given the odds stacked against him, given the scale of the political challenges he had to overcome, to achieve what he achieved, it’s arguably greater than that of any of his contemporaries, including John Hume.
And despite all the reverence and attention given to Carson and Craig, no unionist leader in my lifetime or before it has done more to empower everyone in Northern Ireland to take control of their own future through agreed institutions of government that genuinely have the support of all sections of society here. No leader of unionism had ever done that until David Trimble did it in 1998.
Through the Good Friday Agreement he gave unionism the opportunity to shape and determine its own future. In my lifetime until 1998 all I ever heard were unionist leaders demanding the UK Government fix all of Northern Ireland’s problems. Well, in 1998, with a copy of the Good Friday Agreement in his hand, David Trimble said: “Enough of that, it’s now up to unionism to decide where we go from here.”
The leaders of today bear a great responsibility to continue taking Northern Ireland forward to a more settled and inclusive future. There will be bumps on the road, but because of the foundations laid by David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, I still believe we will get there.
And, so to my conclusion. I believe history will be kind to David. He isn’t the first politician to be under-appreciated in his lifetime and he won’t be the last.
Those of us who served alongside him know how tough the journey was. When we came to that fork in the road in April 1998 he took us down the road less travelled, and that has made all the difference.
Northern Ireland is an immeasurably better place today because of it.