David Trimble’s journey from hardliner to first minister

David Trimble was the Ulster Unionist hardliner, unafraid of flexing his political muscles, who became a moderate, although tough, leader of the party and then Northern Ireland’s first First Minister.

But his leadership of both the party and region ended at the general election of 2005, as the Ulster Unionists lost their dominant position to play second fiddle to Dr Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party.

The majority unionist population in Northern Ireland warmed to the Paisley “no surrender” style of politics, and grew tired of Mr Trimble and his colleagues who appeared to be too moderate and too willing to compromise in the even in the post-Troubles era.

But just under a year after his general election defeat, Mr Trimble was awarded a peerage, as a working peer.

His was a remarkable transformation from a man who had manned the barricades at the menacing Orange marches at Drumcree into a statesman who played a huge part in achieving the historic Good Friday agreement of 1998.

Politics/Opening Ulster
Northern Ireland’s First Minister David Trimble and Dr Ian Paisley (PA)

It was his role in achieving this agreement that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, with SDLP leader John Hume, later that year.

He went on to join the Conservative Party in 2007, which he said was to have a greater influence on UK politics. Although his wife Daphne remained involved with the Ulster Unionist Party, as did one of his sons, Nicholas, who is a councillor in Lisburn and Castlereagh.

While generally socially conservative in outlook, Lord Trimble admitted in July 2019 that he had changed his position on equal marriage after his daughter Victoria married her girlfriend in 2017.

He joined opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and in 2021, joined then-DUP leader Arlene Foster, UUP leader Steve Aiken and TUV leader Jim Allister in a legal challenge to the post-Brexit treaty on the grounds the protocol breaches the Act of Union and the Belfast Agreement.

Lord Trimble’s final public appearance came at the end of June 2022 at the unveiling of a portrait of him by artist Colin Davidson at Queen’s University.

He then reflected on the approach of the 25th anniversary of the agreement, and pointed out it has survived despite the objections.

He was also sharply critical of the UK government over Brexit and the protocol.

He will be remembered, above all else, for his ability during key junctures of the peace process to keep together in some sort of order the internal warring factions within UUP, ranging from “raging hawks to placid doves” to quote a commentator at the time.

From that he led the Northern Ireland Assembly at which all parties – unionists, nationalists and republicans – once bitter enemies sat in the same debating chamber ostensibly working towards a peaceful future for a region bedevilled by violence and terrorism for more than 25 years.

Frequently he came under attack from uncompromising elements within his own ranks for allegedly surrendering loyalist principles in the gruelling run-up to the 1998 peace process.

But at the end of the day, he was praised by all parties and by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for the courage he had shown in the face of opposition from some unionist colleagues of his.

Even so, many people saw Lord Trimble as a main obstruction to the peace process getting under way. He rejected a compromise from the British and Irish Governments that would set up the Assembly first, and put decommissioning – the ponderous word for disarming the terrorists and paramilitaries – second. But it was a view that was to be vindicated later.

Lord Trimble was a softly-spoken, reserved individual, but a man who could drive a hard bargain – always an essential attribute of Northern Ireland political life.

Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary at the time, often said that none of the parties had got everything they wanted in the Good Friday agreement which was designed to herald a new dawn for the Province. But each, she insisted, had got something.

However, there was never any real rapprochement with the Democratic Unionists, whose leader, Dr Paisley had denounced him for sharing power with people he regarded as former terrorists with blood on their hands.

It would be Dr Paisley who less than 10 years after the agreement was signed would enter a devolved coalition as first minister with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness as Sinn Fein deputy first minister.

In 1998, Lord Trimble secured just 51% of the unionist vote endorsing the agreement. Later, a vote on his own leadership was to be carried by only a marginally bigger margin. He was not a wildly popular figure, but that was a price the job entailed – and he was grimly aware of it.

It was Lord Trimble, incidentally, who probably had more influence than most in removing the “touchy-feely” Ms Mowlam from the post of Northern Ireland Secretary.

He felt that she was too sympathetic to the republican cause, and when Mr Blair was informed of his views, he did not hesitate to pull her out.

It was something Mr Blair had wanted to do for some time – and here was a heaven-sent reason.

William David Trimble was born in Belfast on October 15, 1944, and educated at Bangor Grammar School and Queen’s University, Belfast.

He decided at first to pursue a career in the law, and as a barrister he became a lecturer in law at Queen’s University in 1968 and later, in 1977, senior lecturer as well as assistant dean of faculty.

But his passion for politics was beginning to override his interest in the law. He became a key figure in the United Ulster Unionist Council. Lord Trimble also became the Member for South Belfast in the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975-76.

When the uncompromising Vanguard Party split over plans for voluntary coalition with the mainly nationalist SDLP, Lord Trimble backed the then leader William Craig and became deputy leader himself of the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party.

But in 1978, he re-joined the Ulster Unionists and was associated for a time with the Ulster Clubs movement.

In the same year, he married Daphne Orr. They would have two boys and two girls.

He was chairman of the Lagan Valley Unionist Association and of the Ulster Society from 1985 to 1990.

Lord Trimble became MP at Westminster for Upper Bann at a by-election on May 17, 1990.

The high point of his career, thus far, was when he – in the face of predictions to the contrary – won the Ulster Unionist leadership in September 1995 after the resignation of the veteran Sir James Molyneaux.

This was barely a month after Lord Trimble had stood firmly in support of the Portadown Orangemen at Drumcree – a notorious flashpoint of the Ulster marching season.

Lord Trimble quickly dispelled fears, loudly voiced at the time, that the party had voted in some implacable hard-liner as its leader.

Although little known outside Ulster and Westminster itself at this time, he proved an impressive and fair-minded leader, the latter quality not always welcomed by some of the hardliners with whom he had to deal.

At the 1995 Drumcree stand-off of 1995, Lord Trimble and Dr Paisley paraded along arm-in-arm after the marchers had been let through the barricades. However, this accord between the two men was a short-lived affair.

But not long into his leadership he suffered what could have been a severe and long-term setback. The BBC TV programme, Panorama, disclosed that he had been holding private talks with the leading militant loyalist, Billy Wright, during the protracted and tense stand-off at Drumcree in 1996.

Wright was subsequently sentenced to eight years in jail for terrorist-linked offences.

Lord Trimble, who was gravely embarrassed by the disclosure, defended his actions by saying he was attempting to prevent violence breaking out at Drumcree which, unfortunately, it subsequently did.

Even so, he was accused of hypocrisy for not applying the same standards to Sinn Fein.

Lord Trimble was not always a popular leader, and his tireless negotiations towards the Good Friday Agreement, did not necessarily find him favour with all elements of his party.

One able lieutenant, indeed, William Ross, was openly hostile to the agreement which he felt was being reached down the barrel of an IRA gun.

But the outcome and the seeming ability – for the first time in living memory – for nationalists and unionists to work together for a common cause made it all seem worth while.

Soon after this came the horrific atrocity of the Omagh bomb, planted on August 15 1998, by the so-called Real IRA, a breakaway group from the provisional IRA.

This attack killed 29 civilians. Yet if anything, it helped cement even further the opposing political forces, all of whom, by then, were desperate for peace.

This was a point made by Mr Trimble in his first speech to the newly formed Assembly after a huge majority of the people of Northern Ireland had voted for peace. And he met formally for the first time Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. But there was no hand-shaking.

Lord Trimble used to worry about his appearance, not out of any sense of vanity, but because he felt it gave the wrong impression about his demeanour to people who did not know him well.

Once he said: “I have a problem of looking more angry than I am, and this florid complexion doesn’t help.”

He was, to some extent, a cynical politician and above all a realist. Once he said: “In politics you never totally trust anybody because you never know what is going to happen. Everybody has got his own particular agenda.

“The main question is: can you work with them?”