David Trimble: After the big dinner in Oslo, somebody said why don’t we party together?
Former first minister praises John Hume’s role in shifting attitudes even if he had ‘jaundiced’ view of unionism
U2 lead singer Bono holds up the arms of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble (left) and SDLP leader John Hume on stage during a concert at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. Photograph: Gerry Penny/AFP/Getty Images
David Trimble says while he and John Hume campaigned to ensure the Belfast Agreement struck on Good Friday 1998 would be carried in the referendum held in May that year, up to then they had never socialised together.
Bono famously had them jointly on stage at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast urging the Northern Ireland public to support the deal – which they did by 71 per cent. But even then, there was no need for the then leaders of nationalism and unionism to get personally close because, as Trimble recalls, the U2 frontman issued a diktat, “Neither of you speak, I will do the speaking”.
Trimble reckons that was a good idea.
Seven months later in December, after Hume and Trimble received their Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, they finally decided they should engage in some socialising.
Their respective and more laid back wives Pat and Daphne, and their children, were important in that nationalist-unionist detente.
“After the big dinner was over, somebody said ‘why don’t we party together?’ It was an extremely good idea and throughout the couple of nights in Oslo there was a lot of getting to know each other, of relaxing in each other’s company,” Trimble recalls. “It foreshadowed what happened when we started to put the institutions together.”
John Hume’s place in modern British-Irish history will be viewed as “very substantial”, says Trimble. “There is no doubt of that,” he adds. Trimble is sure Hume will be judged as one of the key architects of the peace process. But the former Northern Ireland first minister acknowledges that for many years unionism in general distrusted Hume and was slow to accept his bona fides.
Trimble believes that Hume had a “jaundiced” view of unionism right from the start of his political career, which might account for how quite a number of unionists will grant him a major role in achieving peace and political stability while also holding back in being fully generous in their plaudits.
“Part of the problem of John’s view of unionism is that based on the fact of his coming from the west bank of the Foyle, he probably had very little contact with unionists,” he says.
Neither did Trimble appreciate the analogy Hume sometimes used to explain the unionist siege mentality. “John Hume kept saying unionists were similar to Afrikaners, which was a weird view. The only similarity is that the Afrikaners were Dutch Calvinists,” he says.
That unionist distrust of Hume transformed into open hostility and even loyalist attacks on some SDLP members when in 1993 secret talks between Hume and the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams were discovered.
Unionists at the time condemned this engagement as the emergence of a dangerous “pan-nationalist front”, notwithstanding Hume’s assertion that he was trying to achieve peace – “and who is afraid of peace?” to use one of his oft-repeated refrains of that time.
Trimble accepts what Hume forged with Adams provided the basis for the Downing Street declaration struck between the then taoiseach Albert Reynolds and British prime minister John Major in December 1993.
Two key principles of that deal respectively appealing to unionists and nationalists were that Irish unity only could be achieved through the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, and that the British government had no “selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”.
“Yes, John had created the conditions for the Downing Street declaration but he was in danger of himself being used by Adams, whose position at that time would not have envisaged accepting the principle of consent and allowing unionists to have a major role in what was going to happen,” says Trimble.
But still he acknowledges that Hume was pivotal in getting Adams and republicans over the line. He says: “I can’t put my finger on when John started to produce what was called his single transferable speech. The positive thing about that speech was his getting Irish nationalists to move away from thinking about the land, to saying that the problem isn’t that the land is divided, the problem is that the people are divided. And if you want to cure things then you have got to address that, you have got to have an agreement between the people.”
‘Notion of consent’
“Now, that carries with it implicitly the notion of consent. You can’t have an agreement where you batter people over the heads with it and say, you got to do this, you got to do that. It’s a basic concept of self-determination that the land does not determine the identity of the people, that the people determine the identity of the land. It’s a trite little phrase but it involves a huge shift.”
He accepts that Hume was central in achieving that shift. Trimble adds that previously, many nationalists applied a Marxist idea of “false consciousness” to unionists – “that unionists have this false notion that they are not Irish” – and again through the consent principle and through enshrining it in the Belfast Agreement Hume helped debunk this argument.
Trimble, though, is critical of Hume for, he believes, allowing Sinn Féin usurp the SDLP as the dominant nationalist party. He says the party “should have been a bit more robust in reminding Sinn Féin about who had actually done the positive work in creating the new institutions. On the nationalist side, Sinn Féin did not do any lifting at all. They found ways of shifting the burden onto other people. Their ‘me, me, me’ attitude caused difficulties.”
Hume had the major challenge of getting the IRA and Sinn Féin and the powersharing elements of unionism to sign up to the Belfast Agreement but when the deal was done, the heavy burden fell on Trimble to keep most of unionism on board.
Trimble, reflecting on very bruising battles, is sure he and Hume and their respective parties pulled off a major feat, first of all in striking the Belfast Agreement and thereafter under fierce pressure – and notwithstanding a number of crises and suspensions – maintaining its architecture and principles to this day.
Those nights when Hume and Trimble and their families finally got to know one another on a personal, human, social level was not unimportant in that achievement, Trimble is sure.
“The leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP did what a lot of people thought was impossible: we managed to put together a relationship good enough to create the institutions, to get them up and running and show they could be used,” he says.
“There was a large section of the community, particularly among the unionist electorate who were deeply sceptical about it, and who thought that it would not work. But people came grudgingly around to saying that, ‘Yes, this is it, this is the only show in town’. It is still there and it is still there basically as we designed it.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble and John Hume jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for their peace efforts that led to the Belfast Agreement. David Trimble was first minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2002