Tribute — David Trimble
by Claire DICKSON
30 July 2022
David Trimble’s contribution to peacemaking in Northern Ireland can only be described as seismic. As the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Trimble showed a willingness to engage with those on the opposing side of Northern Irish politics, to himself and his party. Progress was made through negotiations among not only the parties in Northern Ireland but also with representatives of the British and Irish governments as well as the engagement of the US administration. Trimble’s agreement with US Senator George Mitchell to serve as chair of the Multi-Party Talks can be regarded as crucial. Trimble’s leadership and persistence led to the signing of arguably the most significant peace agreement in the wake of the conflict — the Good Friday Agreement.
After its signing in 1998, its terms dictated that Northern Ireland would govern itself and an important part of its peacebuilding sentiment involved both the unionist and nationalist communities each possessing a reasonable degree of influence over the politics of the state. This was echoed in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture wherein he made reference to Edmund Burke, whom he described as a “pluralist Irishman”. He valued Burke’s background as having come from a Protestant father and Catholic mother, and viewed his open-mindedness in respecting both his Irish roots and the British Parliamentary system as an ideal model for citizens of Northern Ireland. It was his core belief that the agreement would lead to “a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people” at Stormont, through which Northern Ireland would be able to politically flourish.
Despite managing to gain a majority of support for the agreement within the party, he faced tides of opposition from both inside and outside. Within unionism, the Democratic Unionist Party did not participate in the Multi-Party Talks and opposed the peace accord, as it felt that paramilitary weapons not having been decommissioned yet was a price too high for reconciliation.
In the wake of the shift in unionism towards the DUP, which became the largest unionist party, it can be said that Trimble sacrificed his own party’s presence within unionism whilst managing to render the gun largely removed from Northern Irish politics, through the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. In 2022, a bigger picture is seen, as the pluralist society Trimble sought out for Northern Ireland manifests itself through the availability of choice in identifying as British, Irish, both or neither, and having a devolved, power-sharing administration as the default method of governance. Perhaps the Greek Proverb rings true of this particular political giant: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”
Image © Allan LEONARD