The unionist politician David Trimble, Lord Trimble, who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1998 jointly with the nationalist leader John Hume, embodied the complexity of the violent sectarian world of Northern Ireland.
The Nobel organisation described Trimble, who has died aged 77 following a short illness, as a “seeker of compromise” who had once been known “for his implacable stance towards Catholics” and praised his “political bravery” in working towards the peace agreement that had been signed on Good Friday that year. In the elections under the power-sharing constitution that resulted from it he was made first minister, and served until 2002.
Trimble’s unexpected election in September 1995 as leader of the Ulster Unionist party had come because he attracted hardliners inside the UUP. In July that year, he and Ian Paisley, leader of the even more extreme Democratic Unionist party (DUP), had marched arm in arm along the Catholic Garvaghy Road in Portadown, Armagh, leading an Orange Order parade to Drumcree church. But, the Nobel prize citation records, “a few weeks after taking over as party leader … [Trimble] launched discussions with his political opponents”.
In 2008, in reviewing Great Hatred, Little Room, the account of the peace process by Jonathan Powell, the prime minister Tony Blair’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland, Trimble offered a clue to his motivation. He wrote that Powell was “mistaken in his belief that the objective was to build trust, which is over-rated and frequently misplaced. The issue in politics is, rather, can you do business with the other side?”
Trimble was driven by a passion to create a secure future within Northern Ireland for families such as his own, “proudly” descended from those Scots Protestant planters settled in Ireland after 1690 by William of Orange when he defeated the Catholic King James II.
Trimble never lost his distrust of Catholics, even those he negotiated with, such as Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), and certainly not of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin leader who was also involved in peace negotiations. For eight months of the talks, Trimble refused to speak directly to Adams and did not shake his hand until 2000. Trimble said in 2014 that he would have refused the Nobel prize if Adams had also been nominated.
In the House of Commons in 1998, Trimble opposed the setting up of an inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings of 30 January 1972, when paratroopers from the 1st Parachute Regiment killed 14 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry. The Saville inquiry, agreed on as part of the peace settlement, was to reinvestigate the report by Lord (John) Widgery as lord chief justice, which in 1972 had exonerated the paratroopers.
Trimble said, “I am sorry to have to say … I think that the hope expressed … that this will be part of the healing process is likely to be misplaced … The basic facts of the situation are known and not open to dispute.”
In 2010, by this time a Conservative life peer, Trimble was a rare cautious voice when the prime minister David Cameron read Lord (Mark) Saville’s report to the Commons. Cameron said, “There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal … What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable.”
Trimble said he accepted that the killings were wrong, but that “it would be perverse if the events of Bloody Sunday were used to justify those unjustifiable events that PIRA [the Provisional IRA] launched in the 1970s”. Two Royal Ulster Constabulary policemen, he pointed out, were killed in Derry the day before Bloody Sunday.
It had been that violence, beginning with internment in August 1971, that had first brought Trimble out of Queen’s University, Belfast, where he was a lecturer and dean of the law faculty, and into politics. Writing in the Irish Times in 2007, he said: “I became fully involved in Northern Ireland politics in the winter of 1972-73, off the back of the worst year of the troubles when some 500 persons were killed … it was the prorogation of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule that threatened to destabilise society. Like many unionists I … feared that London’s aim was to drive us in the direction of a united Ireland.”
His motivation was to protect Northern Ireland inside the UK, but not directly ruled from Westminster. Trimble had four children, and his often-expressed fear was that they, like many middle-class Protestants, would go to university in Britain and never return. That his younger son, Nicholas, became secretary of the UUP for Trimble justified the often brutal effort that he put into that 1998 settlement.
The son of Ivy (nee Jack) and William Trimble, who had met when civil servants, David was born in Bangor, County Down, into a comfortable lower middle-class Presbyterian family. After Bangor grammar, he studied law at Queen’s University and tried, he said, to let the civil rights movement pass him by. He joined the law faculty in 1968 as a lecturer, and was called to the bar of Northern Ireland the following year.
Then Edward Heath suspended Stormont. Trimble had joined the Orange Order when he was 17, but became active only once he joined Vanguard, the loyalist movement founded in 1972 by the former unionist cabinet member William Craig. From his earliest days in active politics, Trimble moved on the edges of the murky world of the loyalist paramilitaries.
As Craig’s henchman, he organised thousands-strong rallies against the power-sharing agreed by the Sunningdale conference in 1973. During the 1974 Ulster workers’ strike, Trimble of necessity formed links with the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, led by Andy Tyrie. He thereafter used those loyalist contacts when he needed them. But Trimble also maintained contacts with nationalists, even through the 70s, and in 1975 negotiated a potential coalition with Paddy Devlin, the West Belfast nationalist politician.
Trimble was one of seven Vanguard members elected to the assembly created after the 1975 Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention. Then, when Vanguard collapsed in 1977, he continued as a senior lecturer at Queen’s. But he moved fast in 1989 when Harold McCusker, the UUP MP for Upper Bann, died. In the intervening years, Trimble had quietly joined the UUP and in 1990 he became the Westminster MP for Upper Bann, the constituency that included Drumcree.
In the Commons, Trimble was a thorn in the flesh of the UUP leader James Molyneaux, with whom his only shared interest was opera. Molyneaux believed in full integration within the UK. Trimble saw a devolved administration with a ringfenced constitutional status in the UK, and a negotiated relationship with Ireland, as the safest option. Integration he believed impractical, given the diametrical differences between Northern Ireland and Britain’s economic needs, particularly in Europe. In this he was in the mainstream of Ulster business belief. When Molyneaux was ousted in 1995, Trimble seized the party leadership.
As leader he took the UUP into peace talks with the SDLP. Trimble’s links with the nationalists had never been completely broken but he was, nonetheless, reluctant to enter talks with Hume, in particular because Hume was also negotiating with Adams and through him with the former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness.
Trimble was persuaded to the conference table by Blair and by Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister. In turn he persuaded the UUP to sign the 1998 Good Friday agreement and agree the 1999 executive, in which Trimble became first minister, with Hume’s deputy, Seamus Mallon, as his deputy first minister.
As leader, his achilles heel was his relationship with John Taylor (now Lord Kilclooney), his deputy, and Jeffrey Donaldson, the rightwing barrister who eventually joined the DUP. They nurtured a certain hostility, particularly after Trimble agreed to “jump first”, sharing power with Sinn Féin in the 1999 executive before the IRA had decommissioned weapons.
Trimble persuaded the Unionist council to accept this compromise by writing his postdated resignation to become effective if no guns were decommissioned by February 2000. The council held Trimble to the resignation. To save his leadership he demanded that the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, suspend the executive. The executive was eventually restored but in the end Trimble was ousted anyway.
In 2005 he lost his Westminster seat, and in 2006 resigned as party leader and was elevated to the House of Lords. A year later he joined the Conservatives. He said that as an 18-year-old he had assumed he might have a political life as a Conservative but was diverted by the troubles into domestic politics. As a Conservative he felt he would have more influence over Northern Ireland, but he also became involved in wider issues, including the international Friends of Israel Initiative, and served on the 2010 Turkel Commission, set up by the Israeli government, which found the Gaza flotilla blockade by Israel to be legal.
Trimble came to terms politically, though never personally, with Hume. He even showed some admiration for McGuinness when he discovered him showing children around Stormont, the ultimate symbol of the Protestant ascendancy. He retained a naive certainty that unionists were unjustly accused of discrimination and was proud of his Scots roots. He said of the education achievement in Northern Ireland, “That is the Scottish factor. The culture places a high value on education.” He insisted in the Good Friday negotiations that Ulster Scots should be given a dictionary and have parity with Gaelic.
But for all this political partisanship, Trimble was a cosmopolitan man, a lover of opera, Elvis Presley and London life. His family was his bedrock and his second wife, Daphne Orr, whom he married in 1978 after his first marriage ended in divorce, was his political sounding board. He was a regular at Irish embassy parties in London, where few unionists socialised; and was bookish, at conferences retiring to bed with a biography or a novel while others went to the bar. He loved driving holidays in Europe and would come back laden with wine.
The bookishness allowed supporters to portray him as a man of letters trapped in politics. He was not. Political ambition coursed through him. He particularly enjoyed the international scene on which he had to move, given the crucial US involvement in the peace talks, and enjoyed telling of looking after his youngest child, Sarah, one evening and bundling her along with him when the US consul in Belfast phoned for an ad hoc meeting with Edward Kennedy, who gave Sarah a President JF Kennedy silver half dollar. Trimble’s delight was disarmingly human.
At the wedding of his other daughter, Victoria, to her partner, Rosalind, he walked her down the aisle. As he told the Lords in 2019, their relationship had forced him to change his mind on the question of same-sex marriage, which became legal in Northern Ireland the following year, and he fully supported the change.
He is survived by Daphne, their two daughters and two sons, Richard and Nicholas.