David Trimble remembered by Jonathan Powell

15 October 1944 – 25 July 2022
Tony Blair’s chief of staff recalls the Ulster Unionist party leader’s courage in getting the Good Friday Agreement over the line – at the cost of his own political career

Not all Nobel peace prize winners are truly deserving. David Trimble – and John Hume – however actually deserved the accolade for their work in securing peace in Northern Ireland.

I first met David Trimble when I was at the British embassy in Washington in the early 1990s and responsible for taking unionist politicians to see congressmen and senators. There wasn’t a lot of understanding for unionists among the Irish American caucuses and it was uphill work. Helping David to champion their cause earned me his trust in subsequent years.

David was an unusual politician, intellectual, awkward and often cantankerous. I liked him, but when we were negotiating in 10 Downing Street, he would sometimes suddenly stand up, walk across the room and take a book off the shelf and start reading or answer a call from Frank Millar of the Irish Times in mid-sentence. Nor was he fully aware of how his public appearances seemed. During Bill Clinton’s huge peace rally at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast with Trimble and John Hume in 1998, David stood up in the middle of Clinton’s speech and walked off the stage. Most of the audience thought he was walking out, but I knew he was attending a seminar on terrorism in Israel and didn’t want to be late for his plane.

David could be a frustrating negotiating partner. I managed to agree the text of the “heads of agreement” with all the Northern Ireland parties on a Sunday night in January 1998 and went to bed pleased with myself but fearing I might have pushed the Irish government too far in accepting amendments to please the unionists. First thing Monday morning I was woken by a phone call from David virtually in tears. He had shown the document to his colleagues John Taylor and Ken Maginnis and they hated it. Instead of endorsing it, as he had agreed to do the night before, he was going to publicly attack it. I had to scramble to get yet more concessions.

I was however always prepared to forgive David his foibles because of his remarkable political bravery. He had won the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party as a hardliner and the outsider candidate. Years before he had been partly responsible for bringing down the moderate unionist prime minister Brian Faulkner‘’. But when he was convinced that something was right he would sacrifice everything for it. The most striking example of this courage I saw first-hand was during the bloody conflict over the Drumcree march in 1998, an annual parade by the Orange Order through a Catholic area of Portadown. There was a standoff after the chief constable banned the march and 10,000 unionists gathered on the hill behind the razor wire to confront the police and army. As the local MP and a leader of the Orange Order, Trimble was fully in support and joined the protesters. On the morning of Sunday 11 July, however, a Catholic family of three young children, the Quinns, were burned to death in their home by a sectarian attack in Ballymoney, County Antrim. I was with David when the news came in and he showed no hesitation. He didn’t consult his colleagues, or calculate the odds, but went straight to the TV cameras and demanded the march be called off; “a road is not worth a life”. Trimble paid a high personal price both politically and physically as a result, being mobbed by loyalists for his treachery when he appeared publicly for years afterwards.

Trimble, left, with Tony Blair and John Hume on the last day of campaigning for a yes vote in the referendum on the Good Friday agreement, 1998.
Trimble, left, with Tony Blair and John Hume on the last day of campaigning for a yes vote in the referendum on the Good Friday agreement, 1998. Photograph: Chris Bacon/PA

Even more importantly, David demonstrated his bravery too on Good Friday 1998 by opting for peace rather than the safe traditional political route of “Ulster says No”. David had enjoyed success in rolling back Irish ambitions for a large number of north/south bodies and crucially he had secured the continuation of the union and acceptance of the principle of consent. On the morning of Good Friday the large room assigned to the Ulster Unionist party was packed and the debate on whether to accept the final draft of the agreement was fraught after three days and nights without sleep. Tony Blair decided he needed to issue a side letter to reassure the unionists on the decommissioning of IRA weapons and get the agreement over the line. I typed up the letter on my laptop as Tony dictated it, tore it off the printer (forgetting to keep a copy) and rushed down to the UUP office. The door was locked against me and in the end I resorted to slipping the letter under the door, at which point a young unionist let me in. I ran up to the top table and gave it to Trimble. John Taylor, his deputy, read it over his shoulder and said: “That will do.” Trimble agreed and we proceeded to sign the agreement immediately.

In giving unionist support to the Good Friday agreement David effectively signed the death warrant of his party and his own political career. But crucially he gave Northern Ireland a new and peaceful future. Whatever the current travails in the province as a result of Brexit, Northern Ireland will never return to the Troubles. The people of Northern Ireland, of the Republic and of Great Britain have good reason to be eternally grateful to David Trimble for the sacrifice he made that morning.


Jonathan Powell

The GuardianTramp

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