Former first minister’s legacy is as a man ‘whose courage and vision transformed NI’
One of David Trimble’s closest aides says his relentless determination over the Good Friday Agreement was fuelled by his desire to see a better future for his four children.
David Campbell, who was undecided about backing the one-time hardliner in the 1995 race for the position of leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said Lord Trimble became resolute in his desire for peace and frequently told him that he did it for his kids.
“David had a young family when he took the reins of the Unionist Party in 1995 when he was painting a picture of a leadership that would point to a different Northern Ireland.
“He simply wasn’t prepared to have a situation where his children and everyone else’s children would grow up in the same atmosphere that he did,” said Mr Campbell, who is now chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council which represents the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando.
“I don’t think any other unionist leader could have made the agreement. It just took someone like David to do it.”
Lord Trimble will be buried tomorrow after a funeral service in Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church in Lisburn. Those due to attend include Irish President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Micheal Martin, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald, the Ulster Unionist and DUP leadership as well as other local political leaders.
Even though he was a close family friend Mr Campbell said he was undecided about voting for Mr Trimble or John Taylor in September 1995 at the Ulster Hall where the Rev Martin Smyth, Willie Ross and Ken Maginnis were also vying for the Unionist leadership.
Mr Taylor was favourite to triumph but Mr Campbell said: “David’s perfectly pitched speech won many waverers over. And coming so soon after Drumcree had propelled David to prominence I think he won 95 per cent of votes from Orange delegates who were at that time an important part of the party.”
After his victory in the UUP leadership race of 1995, Mr Trimble asked Mr Campbell to be one of the UUP negotiators in George Mitchell’s all-party peace talks and when the deal was done he invited him to become his chief of staff and senior policy adviser.
“He knew I shared doubts over prisoner releases and decommissioning, which were the big risks David was taking and for me were concessions that Sinn Fein didn’t deserve.
“I think he appointed me because he knew I wasn’t a yes-person. I never imagined the roller-coaster that was ahead but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. David was tremendous to work for and he enabled people like me to be part of history. I was still close to him after he lost his Westminster seat in 2005 and we were latterly opposing the Protocol which he felt was a betrayal of unionism and a breach of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Campbell, who was Ulster Unionist Party chairman between 2005 and 2012, spoke of his shock at the suddenness of Lord Trimble’s passing last week. “We all knew he was extremely ill but we didn’t know how quickly it would happen. We had arranged to have a bite of lunch but sadly that never happened.”
The former Upper Bann MP was last seen in public at the unveiling of a Colin Davidson portrait of him at Queen’s University, Belfast, late last month and it was the first time that many people knew how frail he was.
It’s understood that Lord Trimble’s wife Daphne wasn’t sure, even on the day of the unveiling, that he would have been well enough to attend the function.
Mr Campbell said that he believed if David Trimble and Mark Durkan of the SDLP had been able to continue in their roles as first and deputy first ministers after Stormont’s collapse in 2002, Northern Ireland could have been a better place.
He has visited Lord Trimble’s family who he said were in shock and he believes his abiding legacy would be the Good Friday Agreement and its “enshrining democracy and consent at the heart of anything that happens in Northern Ireland”.
“That’s why the primacy of that part of the Agreement is restored in the midst of the Protocol and I think it will be,” he added.
“But for me David’s overall legacy is the belief that nothing is impossible. No one would have thought that when they saw the Drumcree issues of 1996 to 1998 that this man would then agree a peace deal that ended 30 dreadful years of violence.
“His legacy is the Northern Ireland that we see today, a Northern Ireland that is unrecognisable from the one we knew.
“Obviously there were others who were responsible too but David sacrificed his own position and his party’s position to make it happen.”