Trimble took more risks than Hume, says Eoghan Harris

Commentator and occasional adviser to late UUP leader hails Trimble’s ‘moral fortitude’

Eoghan Harris, the commentator and occasional informal adviser to former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble has said the former first minister took more risks than SDLP leader John Hume to deliver the Belfast Agreement

Praising Trimble, whose funeral is to take place in Lisburn next Monday, for his “immense courage” and “moral fortitude” in persuading unionism to back the agreement, Harris said: “His place in history is immense. Everyone talks about the risks that John Hume took, but Hume didn’t run the same risks as Trimble did — with his own party, with the British government. He was incredibly isolated but he had the moral fortitude to stick it out.”

Harris engaged closely with Trimble for a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the peace process was in its infancy, peppering him with notes and documents containing analysis of politics north and south, as well as suggested tactics and strategies for dealing with Dublin, London, nationalists in Northern Ireland and his own party.

Harris says he “had a hunch about Trimble” and made contact with him soon after he became leader. “I knew he was an interesting character from way back,” he says. “And he went to Dublin soon after becoming leader. I thought he was like Proinsias De Rossa (the former Workers’ Party and later Democratic Left leader who had travelled the road from violent republicanism to a revisionist, anti-IRA position) ... I saw the same traits in him. I thought he was that kind of man.”


Harris made contact with Trimble soon after he became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and often spoke with and sent documents to Daphne, Trimble’s wife, whom Harris describes as “the most under-rated player in the peace process”.

Cold house

He drafted sections of Trimble’s 1998 Nobel lecture, including the description of Northern Ireland as “a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics”, and Trimble name-checked Harris in the script.

Harris’s influence with Trimble was at its greatest during the period of stalemate after the Belfast Agreement, when the question of the decommissioning of IRA arms almost derailed the whole process. Trimble insisted that the IRA had to put its weapons verifiably beyond use before the powersharing administration could be established, a position encapsulated in the phrase “no guns, no government”.

But Harris argued that unionists would gain the “high moral ground” if they entered the powersharing institutions and demanded that the governments — Irish, British and American — deliver the decommissioning of IRA arms subsequently. Convinced, Trimble sought Harris’s help to persuade his party to follow him. He brought Harris to a meeting of UUP assembly members in a hotel near Glasgow.

“I thought my position could get them off the hook of ‘no guns, no government’,” says Harris. “If everyone else — the British army, the RUC, the SAS — had failed to achieve IRA decommissioning, I asked them how they expected themselves, a civilian political party, to do it.”

A few weeks later, Trimble invited Harris to repeat the performance at the party’s annual conference. “I called the Good Friday Agreement ‘an amazing grace’ and I appealed to their religious sense,” he says.

Harris’s interventions and Trimble’s political manoeuvring worked. A series of knife-edge meetings of the party’s ruling council took place during this period, but Trimble prevailed. He followed what Harris called the “Daphne principle”, described by Trimble’s wife — that he needed just enough support to carry on.

“Irish politicians never really appreciate the pressure he was under, or the risks he took,” Harris said.

There was something about Bertie that he responded to. I’ve never seen David Trimble so relaxed as he was with Bertie Ahern

—  Eoghan Harris

Harris says Trimble established a relationship of trust with Bertie Ahern from early in his tenure as leader. “He told me from day one that he trusted Bertie,” he says. When, at the height of the negotiations on the Belfast Agreement, Trimble made it known to Ahern, via Tony Blair, that he needed to renegotiate strand two of the agreement — Dublin’s input into the government of Northern Ireland — Ahern conceded.

The relationship between the two men was a two-way street. “There was something about Bertie that he responded to,” says Harris. “I’ve never seen David Trimble so relaxed as he was with Bertie Ahern.”

After the decommissioning issue was overcome, Harris drifted away from Trimble’s inner circle and the two lost touch.

“I was never a friend of his,” Harris says. “I was very fond of him. But I never really spoke to him after the decommissioning issue was settled.”

“I wouldn’t say he was irascible. He was distant. He was incredibly shy. It used to drive me mad sometimes that he wouldn’t press the flesh.

“But that sort of austerity gave him great strength. It gave him an enigmatic quality in his party ... A sense of distance and also the hard man record. Irish people always respond to it. Parnell had it too. Irish people respond more to a chief than a chairman. And unionists are Irish people too.”

It was confirmed, meanwhile, that Taoiseach Micheál Martin will attend Mr Trimble’s funeral service Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church at 12.30pm on Monday.

Mr Martin credited Mr Trimble’s “central contribution” in efforts to secure peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.

“All of us in politics at the time witnessed his crucial and courageous role in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement and his leadership in building support in his party and his community for the Agreement,” he said.

Belfast Mayor Lord Tina Black opened a book of condolence at City Hall on Tuesday.

Mayor of Derry and Strabane Sandra Duffy is to open a book of condolence in Derry’s Guildhall, while an online book was opened in Armagh.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times