`To end the internal cold war in this land'

 

Unlike some of the insubstantial pot-boilers that pass for biographies of serving politicians, Henry McDonald's important book on David Trimble is well-written, interesting and brings a lot of revealing information to light, particularly for those who have not followed Trimble's career closely before he became party leader.

Even though inevitably there are gaps - and some mistakes - and areas where one may question the interpretation, the book will be of benefit to anyone interested in the peace process, and who wants to get a better insight into the leader of Ulster Unionism.

McDonald is Ireland correspondent of the Observer, and he shows critical sympathy towards his subject. Another, possibly longer, biography by Dean Godson, deputy editor of the The Daily Telegraph, is due to follow later this year.

The prologue "No Celebrations in Ulster's Hebron" sets the scene in Drumcree, the day in December 1998 that David Trimble received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo alongside John Hume, and depicts the indifference and hostility of many Orangemen and loyalists in Portadown to their former hero. The theme of the book is the road travelled by Trimble from staunch, uncompromising loyalism, to reach an accord with Irish nationalism and, in his own words, "end the internal cold war in this land".

Like many who are of 17th-century-settler stock, Trimble is conscious of ancestry. His maternal grandfather, W.H. Jack, was a former Unionist mayor of Derry, a member of Carson's UVF who, having trained at Finner Camp, Bundoran, survived the Somme with the 36th Ulster Division. A maternal ancestor was a defender in the siege of Derry. Incidentally, the pope alleged to have celebrated William's victory at the Boyne could not have been Pope Leo (p10) nor Pope Gregory (p293). One would like to know the first-hand sources for this repeated Orange claim. The pope was Alexander VIII. The name Trimble is apparently derived from Turnbull, from Northumberland on the Scottish borders. Trimble's paternal grandfather was from Cavan and a member of the RIC who went North in 1921, and his mother was born in Buncrana. I have always felt that culturally David Trimble does have a sense of Ulster as a province of nine counties. McDonald is wrong to say that at partition six of the nine counties contained significant Protestant majorities. That that was not so was one of the fundamental flaws in partition. Indeed, Trimble in his 1991 pamphlet The Foundation of Northern Ireland, argues that Nationalists should have made an offer of four counties in 1913, and that this would have avoided much subsequent conflict.

Trimble was brought up frugally in the security of Bangor, in a period seen by Unionists as "a golden age". At school, he showed great aptitude for history, identifying with the Puritan Commonwealth, though of the view that "while the Royalists were wrong they were also romantic, whereas the Roundheads were right but offensive". The author claims Trimble was never particularly conscious of people's religion as a factor on its own. He was a good scholar and became law lecturer in Queen's, even tutoring an official IRA student in Long Kesh. He was offended by the civil rights protests in Derry, where his grandfather had been Lord Mayor in the 1950s.

Unimpressed by many of the Unionist old guard, he joined Vanguard along with Reg Empey, David Burnside, Jim Wilson and Anthony Alcock, and became close to Bill Craig. There, he came into contact with the loyalist paramilitaries. Andy Tyrie recalls that he always found David Trimble far-sighted - "he was always keen to see how we could politically outmanoeuvre Sinn Fein and the IRA", though Trimble felt political violence wasn't necessarily the answer (outside a doomsday situation).

In the Assembly Elections of 1973, Trimble strongly attacked Faulkner. Vanguard election literature promised that he and the other candidates would "not allow murderers and quislings to destroy Ulster and hand it over to Republicans". It would be very important to him later to be able to point out differences between the Sunningdale Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement, although the latter very obviously drew, among other sources, and with variations, on the former; "Sunningdale for slow learners", as Seamus Mallon has memorably put it.

At a time of constitutional turmoil, Trimble attacked Desmond Boal's proposal for a federated Ireland, advocating the alternative case for independence "with guarantees against untrammelled Protestant hegemony" together with a Council of the British Isles. Trimble, a backroom boy in the 1974 loyalist workers' strike which brought down Sunningdale, apparently helped draft a long statement of the Ulster Workers' Council, with its key argument: "The Ulster workers' strike is not an act of rebellion against a lawful authority, but a protest within the law against the denial of the rights of the democratic wishes of the majority of the Ulster people." In the 1975 Convention elections, he subsequently attacked the SDLP for trying to manipulate Ulster into an all-Ireland state. But he developed the concept of voluntary coalition put forward by Bill Craig, which split Vanguard, and he apparently regards it as a missed opportunity for Unionism, in that it did not provide for an all-Ireland dimension.

In the early days of his leadership, Trimble wanted to cut out Strand 2 altogether. With the economist John Simpson, he apparently contributed ideas to a paper on independence for the Ulster Loyalists Co-ordinating Committee, which suggested that Ulster become an independent Republic within the Commonwealth, with some cross-border co-operation within a community of the British Isles. In the late 1980s, Trimble's own position was more for an independent dominion within the Commonwealth, first put forward by Sir James Craig in 1920.

He became a strong opponent of Enoch Powell, who he called "the Wolverhampton Wanderer" for killing the idea of voluntary coalition. Nonetheless, Trimble joined the Ulster Unionist Party in 1978, and because he was bright was considered a catch. He remained a devolutionist, and contributed regularly to a column in Fortnight magazine under the byline Calvin McNee: in it, he was critical of the Molyneaux leadership and its exaggerated faith in Mrs Thatcher. "He also raged at the new SDLP nationalism that had walked away from an internal solution to Northern Ireland's problems ". The assassination of fellow-lawyer and rising star Edgar Graham by the IRA at Queen's in 1983 had a profound impact on Trimble.

In 1985, around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, he became involved in setting up the Ulster Society as a counterweight to the Irish identity. He wrote a pamphlet on the 1916 Rising - predictably seeing it as the source of many later problems - in which he defended General Maxwell's decision to execute the leaders.

In his pamphlet on the government of Northern Ireland, he argued that Michael Collins was outmanoeuvred by Craig, "who went the extra mile in the so-called Craig-Collins pacts, until Collins' bad faith was revealed ". It is a pity McDonald does not analyse more deeply the evolution of Trimble's political ideas, including those on the Ulster-British identity, and the important contributions his study, both of history and of law, have made to his political analysis.

In opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Trimble joined the Ulster Clubs, taking a very militant attitude. But he also contributed at this time to John McMichael of the UDA's Common Sense document, which made a lucid and unanswerable case for power-sharing in a divided society. He attended the British-Irish Association as far back as 1982 - not for the first time in 1986, as claimed by McDonald.

He succeeded to Harold McCusker's seat in Upper Bann in 1990. According to McDonald, he led the rooftop Glengall street protest against Charles Haughey's visit as Taoiseach and President of the European Council to address the Institute of Directors in Belfast in April 1991, allowing Paisley and Robinson to join him. Haughey was welcomed by Empey, as Lord Mayor of Belfast, and made a statesmanlike address which was warmly applauded. As late as 1996, when Trimble came down to Dublin to launch An Economics Lesson for Irish Nationalists and Republicans by Birnie and Roche, ("this objective study by two academic economists" - the Rev Martin Smyth), he was slow to recognise the strength of Irish economic performance in the 1990s (though he has done so handsomely since) and its implications for the attractiveness of North-South co-operation, on which his instinct has been to apply the brakes, taking satisfaction in blocking any all-Ireland industrial investment body.

He would not in the early 1990s accept invitations to the Irish Embassy in London. But he was responsible in 1994 for the opening up of lines to America after the first IRA ceasefire, which was an important and successful initiative.

McDonald argues that Trimble discouraged destabilisation of Molyneaux's leadership. But the seminal moment was when he celebrated the successful completion of the initially blocked Orange march down the Garvaghy Road in 1995. His defence of this notorious episode seems to be that he was trying to stop Paisley claiming all the credit for it. He attributed his victory in the leadership election more to his Ulster Society friends than the Orange Order, and he had mustered a greater following among the grass roots than his rivals.

Many people on both sides of the border were alarmed by Trimble's election. But what brings a person to political leadership - often some form of opposition or the adoption of hard-line positions - is no guide to their subsequent actions. Then, they are in charge of the ship, and responsible for its safety. The strength of the currents may carry them where they did not envisage going.

One of the most immediately positive aspects of his leadership was his willingness, unlike his predecessor, to break the ice and engage in long overdue direct dialogue with both government and opposition in Dublin.

Unionism had allies in the ruling Tory party. Major's cabinet colleague, Lord Cranborne, felt the brakes were put on more for ideological than government survival reasons, saying: "My feeling was that there was a strong Orange tinge which affected a substantial part of the Tory back-benchers in the House of Commons, and the presence of people like me was an inhibitor against more wholesale concessions," the hard-core of strongly Orange/Unionist sympathisers being about 60 MPs.

According to McDonald, only the courageous action of a Protestant on the Shankill refusing to hand over his car to hijackers prevented serious loyalist retaliation on the night of the Canary Wharf bombing in February 1996. (There have been many potentially catastrophic near-misses during the peace process, in addition to the Omagh disaster). Trimble also used his influence to discourage loyalist retaliation. But McDonald is critical of Trimble's meetings with Billy Wright at Drumcree in July 1996, arguing that unionists rescued the IRA, which had been on the ropes.

The later part of the book is increasingly coloured by the influence on Trimble claimed on behalf of knowledgeable interpreters from a nationalist background, such as Sean O'Callaghan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Eoghan Harris. McDonald gives credence to Eoghan Harris's claim to have "reinvented Trimble", especially in the South. Harris sent him papers on everything from Drumcree to decommissioning, and urged him (good advice) to keep his temper with interviewers. Harris also apparently took it on himself to urge Trimble repeatedly to "put down" Donaldson on grounds of "treachery". Any political leader needs to be able to distinguish, in the stream of advice he receives, the better ideas to be picked out and used from those that could leave a trail of wreckage behind him.

O'Callaghan claims credit for the organisation of a pan-unionist conference at Lord Cranborne's, but it was not a great success, and the loyalists were furious at being excluded. The future co-ordinator sympathetic to unionism would have been John Lloyd, the influential New Labour columnist on the New Statesman, who according to this book helped Peter Mandelson secretly against the militant tendency.

There were other, less public, advisers and sounding-boards. But there is only a single reference to John Holmes, Blair's (and Major's) private secretary, whose importance as a constant link to the prime minister until he departed to be ambassador to Portugal in February 1999 is not adequately recognised.

Trimble is recalled as early as the summer of 1997 predicting: "I can definitely do a deal with Bertie". George Mitchell's tribute to Bertie Ahern's willingness to compromise in the final days of negotiations on Strand 2 as "a superb demonstration of leadership" is recalled. Brian Garrett reassured Trimble that the rewriting of Articles 2 and 3 was "masterly", an intervention which seemed to unsettle "particularly Trimble's legal advisers"! On the final day, when facing a party revolt led by Jeffrey Donaldson, Trimble turned around and said "I'm going ahead with this. This is what leadership is all about." Trimble has apparently admitted that he concentrated so much on Strand 2 (North-South institutions), that he did not pay the same attention to prisoners, which the triumphal appearance of the Balcombe Street gang at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis brought to the boil, undermining unionist support for the agreement.

McDonald writes that the problem with the Ulster Unionist party is that, despite having once run a one-party State, it is hyperdemocratic, Steven King (a Unionist adviser) once describing it as "run on the lines of Presbyterian anarchy with a whiff of Anglican arrogance". The older MPs were viscerally opposed to power-sharing with nationalists, Trimble apparently describing them as "wooden-tops". All the same, Trimble has said he would not be comfortable with simply suppressing critical debate. Trimble had to use unconvincing arguments, such as suggesting all nationalists are saying that "Londonderry and the Bogside here behind me are as British now as Bangor or Bournemouth", or that the marching season could be turned into a major tourist attraction, when in reality it is the biggest tourist deterrent. McDonald is wrong in saying a startling 81 per cent voted for the agreement in the Republic. It was 94.5 per cent.

The demand by extreme Orangemen that Trimble and Denis Rogan be thrown out of the Orange Order for attending funeral masses in Donegal of victims of the Omagh bombing is contrasted with Craig's and Carson's attendance without threat of expulsion at John Redmond's funeral in Westminster Cathedral in 1918.

It is clear unionists long lived in hope of separating the SDLP from Sinn Fein over decommissioning. It is disturbing that the author should speak of Trimble walking into a trap and giving republicans the moral high ground, simply because Adams took up his call to say that violence should be over and done with and a representative appointed to the International Commission in September 1998. But Trimble would not shake hands with Adams, on the grounds that the origin of a handshake was to show there was no weapon in the other person's hand. He is said to prefer McGuinness to Adams, presumably aware that publication of such a sentiment will inevitably be seen as an attempt to sow distrust. Apparently, LVF disarmament came about partly as a result of American money given to Pastor Kenny McClinton's Ulster American Christian foundation, in the belief that this would start the decommissioning ball rolling. On the other hand, a "No"-side politician visited Mark Fulton in Portadown to urge the LVF not to decommission, on the grounds that it would only help Trimble.

The UDA and UVF have always been more resistant to a unilateral move, realising it would have no real effect on Republicans, and gain no more than momentary political advantage. The idea of a day of commemoration may have occurred to several people. It was put forward at Hillsborough by the Irish government, rather than by the Ulster Unionists acting on a suggestion by Sean O'Callaghan, as McDonald suggests.

The idea of putting a post-dated letter of resignation into the hands of the party chairman is attributed to Paul Bew and Eoghan Harris last July. The epilogue is the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen, with Trimble laughing heartily in the background, as Eoghan Harris berated delegates on the need to modify "the no guns, no government " policy, saying: "You are in the business of making peace, of making historic accommodation (compromise?) with Republicanism and thus saving the Union". McDonald contrasts strategic politics, as three-dimensional chess, with moral draughts (otherwise know as "moral leadership"). The objective, it seems, was to win enough space from the party to establish the institutions, and one way or the other outmanoeuvre republicans.

There is a tendency in nationalist Ireland to be very critical of Unionist leaders, though a lot of credit is given to David Trimble for the progress that has been made together. Although it should be stating the obvious, the mission of any Unionist leader is, through changing conditions, to preserve the Union for as long as possible and preferably indefinitely. It has to be said that, from that point of view, with the possible exception of leaders from O'Neill to Faulkner, they have been making a pretty good job of it, much to the frustration of nationalists and republicans. While peaceful political competition will of course continue, because differing constitutional imperatives are alive and well among both communities in the North, the purpose of the Good Friday Agreement, which offers substantial gains to all sides, is to make sure the effects of such competition are more benign, and that they do not ruin life on this island.

The statesman's mantle will belong to those leaders who can make the new dispensation work, rather than those on any side who see their primary objective as being to defend their territory and checkmate or stalemate their opponents in the course of a long drawn-out series of political chess matches.

Dr Martin Mansergh is Special Advisor to the Taoiseach an O'Callaghan, Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Eoghan Harris.