Advisers to the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble were fearful about his personal safety and wrote to the UK government a year after the Belfast Agreement setting out concerns they had over the protection provided while he was at Parliament Buildings at Stormont or on visits to London.
In response to the letter from Mr Trimble’s aide David Campbell in the spring of 1999, the private secretary to the Northern Ireland security minister Adam Ingram responded: “The minister is well aware of the devastating effect both in personal and political terms an attempt on the life of the First Minister (Designate) would have and has therefore sought assurances that the measures in place both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain are sufficient to minimise the risk of such an event taking place.”
The minister’s private secretary, Fiona McCoy, told Mr Trimble’s aide that “the Chief Constable recently carried out a review of security [at Parliament Buildings] and is satisfied that the operational measures in place are sufficient to deal with threat levels at present.”
The letter is dated March 25th, 1999, seven years before loyalist Michael Stone launched an assault on Stormont in a bid to kill Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, an incident which prompted wholesale changes to security at Parliament Buildings.
The North’s security minister said the UK home office would also be in touch with Mr Trimble to discuss his “understandable concerns” and assured Mr Trimble’s aide that he “takes the issue of personal security for the First Minister (Designate) very seriously and whatever measures he is advised are required to minimise the risk to him will be put in place”.
The letter isn’t the only mention of Mr Trimble’s security in the files just released. In an earlier memo contained in the files, dated March 28th, 1996, the Ulster Unionist leader tells the Conservative security minister John Wheeler that “the arrangement by which his driver was a traffic branch officer was novel and may be less than that which others receive”. Mr Trimble said his “confidence in security branch of the RUC as the experts was dented a little by the fact that they never gave him any advice but rather asked what he would like”.
At the 1996 meeting, Mr Trimble and Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis talked about the overall security situation in Northern Ireland, with the conservative minister giving his view that, despite the ceasefires of two years previously, “there had been no standing down of the terrorist gangs. On the contrary they have used the past 18 months to recruit, train and target”.
The meeting took place nearly two months after the Provisional IRA had ended its ceasefire with the London docklands bombing and the politicians discussed Mr Trimble’s perception that “PIRA/Sinn Féin were ‘all over the place at the moment’” regarding demands for renewing the ceasefire, decommissioning IRA weapons and signing up to the US senator George Mitchell’s principles on peace and democracy.
Mr Wheeler gave his view that “there is a debate going on and we had to work on the assumption that the hard men will win. At best Sinn Féin might come back with a weak ceasefire to ensure the unionists or HMG’s rejection of it as a ticket into all party talks; this would give PIRA the excuse for full scale violence”.
Despite the seriousness of the issues under the discussion, the mood of the March 1996 meeting seems to have been relatively upbeat – the memo reports that “Mr Trimble was in very approachable and friendly form. His undertakings to use influence on the parades issue might be taken with a pinch of salt. However, he was using compromise language and the fact that he sees the importance of doing so might be significant.”
Mr Trimble was the subject of less favourable commentary in a security memo the previous year. The Northern Ireland Office’s senior security adviser John Steele expressed strong concern about the behaviour of the Upper Bann MP during the Drumcree crisis of 1995, which took place two months before he was elected as Ulster Unionist leader.
In a memo dated July 18th, 1995, Mr Steele noted that the RUC had “been working very hard to eliminate the public order problems associated with the marching season”. He said it might have been assumed the peace process would reduce tensions, but instead Sinn Féin “spotted an opportunity to provoke clashes between the RUC and the nationalist community – an integral part of their current strategy”.
Mr Steele argued that “given the Sinn Féin intervention ... the RUC did remarkably well. The Portadown situation was very unpleasant but there was an eventual agreement, which the dreadful Trimble did his best to obstruct and spoil.”
That was the year that the Upper Bann MP paraded through Portadown alongside Ian Paisley after the Orange march was able to proceed down the Garvaghy Road, and was awarded a “Siege of Drumcree” medal by the Orange Order. Mr Trimble’s hardline stance on the march is credited with building support for him in the vote to replace Jim Molyneaux as Ulster Unionist leader.