The Irish Times view on David Trimble: a man of courage and imagination

In a political tradition that has suffered from a lack of strategic leadership, Trimble’s strength was his ability to take the long view

When David Trimble unexpectedly won the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1995, it seemed as if the prospects for a lasting peace settlement were bound to recede. He had been a member of the hardline Vanguard movement in the 1970s, and a key player in the Ulster Workers’ Council strike against the Sunningdale power-sharing deal. The abiding image of Trimble was his march down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, hand-in-hand with Ian Paisley, after a bitter row between the Orange Order and nationalist residents. He was an unnatural politician – abrasive, awkward and, it was assumed, inflexible.

But Trimble’s reputation for intransigence, and his staunch unionist commitment, would give him latitude that his rivals lacked. It would soon become clear that behind the gruff exterior was a man of real courage and imagination. Together, these qualities would make Trimble, who died this week, a key figure in a critical period in modern Irish and British history.

In a political tradition that has suffered from a lack of strategic leadership, Trimble’s strength was his ability to take the long view. He could see that not-an-inch unionism – resisting direct dealings with Dublin, for example, or refusing to coalesce with constitutional nationalism – had achieved nothing but to limit the UUP’s political options. As his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech would later demonstrate, he also reflected on Catholic feelings towards the “cold house” that Northern Ireland was, and he could see that unionism had no choice but to engage with that.

Trimble’s first great achievement, with John Hume and others, was negotiating the Belfast Agreement. Many people are alive today because of it. His second achievement was to bring unionism – even those parts of it that for years afterwards railed against it – to accept the new ways of thinking that it represented. His conclusion in 1998 was that while the Agreement was tactically useful for republicans, it was of strategic importance for unionists in that it secured the union and the peace.


The weakest politicians never move, never change, never meet half-way. They luxuriate in the futile comforts of dogmatic purity. That was the course chosen by Trimble’s opponents, internal and external. But he could see that compromise was the only way to secure the future for the people of Northern Ireland. And to do so was a sign of strength, not weakness. For seven years after the Belfast Agreement, until he lost his seat in 2005, he endured the most reprehensible threats and abuse as he fought to ensure the Agreement would survive. He did so at a heavy cost to himself and his party. But he prevailed: the structures of 1998 remain fragile, but the ideas and values that animate the deal are the foundations of society and politics in Northern Ireland today.