Voices: David Trimble was a political giant – but his legacy is at risk

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He was about people: how people can change, how people can grow (Getty Images)
He was about people: how people can change, how people can grow (Getty Images)

In my first week at Westminster I spent much of my time ringing my dad and telling him that it was like being in a live episode of Spitting Image. If you are kid raised in the 1980s on a healthy dose of alternative comedy, and with a family obsessed by the news, the cast of political characters was very clear. Neil Kinnock sat next to me in my very first meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party, and for someone with my upbringing, that is like Beyoncé casually sitting down next to you in the local cafe.

In this very same week, a week in Westminster in which my husband and two young sons joined me in the palace to get used to our new life, we had another out-of-body experience. David Trimble gave me marriage advice.

I was not just a kid in the 1980s. I was a kid with a distinctly Northern Irish surname (Trainor) who grew up in Birmingham in the shadow of the Birmingham pub bombings and frequent warnings of violence. It seems unfathomable to my children now, but when I was little my mother would ban us from going into town at certain times of the year.

Christmas shopping was always considered a bomb risk. Even though we were scared of the violence ourselves, there was also the drill we were taught about people who would call our home, (these were the days of the old phone book), and accuse us of things because of our surname, which we shared with members of the IRA. I grew up with the debate of unionism versus republicanism as regular as if we were debating what to have for tea.

As David Trimble was on his way to the Lords end of the building, he stopped to have a chat with me. I was recording a radio programme for World at One with Martha Kearney, and she called him over all casual to share some advice – an old hand to a newbie.

I honestly do not know how I kept my cool. This man was a giant of politics, a man who had appeared in my family’s living room as much as any one of us kids. In that bizarre moment, he focused not on the slings and arrows of politics, or some policy debate, but on our shared humanity. He warned me of the strain politics can put on your family and your marriage. He was kind and gentle and his Northern Irish brogue was nothing like the fire and brimstone my young ears had got used to from the telly. He was a lovely, kind man who worried about his wife and kids. I realised that, watching him on the telly, this had never, ever occurred to me.

As I watch the tributes to a man who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume – the Republican to his Unionist – I could weep at the dignity and courage these men showed. They were understated political giants who authored a peace – often against their best political interests. Certainly in Trimble’s case: he paid the ultimate democratic price, losing his seat in both the Northern Ireland executive and the UK parliament. However, it was a democratic price that the authors of the Good Friday Agreement longed to pay, rather than a violent one.

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It feels at times for those of us with a heritage in Northern Ireland that it has become a plaything of Conservative Party rhetoric. The people there are forgotten among the tough talk and technical language. Their lives, their hopes and dreams seem so often to be lost as the Tories talk of protocols and who can act toughest on the European Court of Human Rights.

In those few moments I spent in a dizzying new palace of politics, David Trimble got to the very heart of my most personal fears for my new life. He was about people: how people can change, how people can grow. And from that moment on, whenever I saw him he would stop and ask me how things were going. I wish that in that moment I had spoken to him that I had had the presence of mind to tell him not to worry about the safety and security of my family, because thanks to politicians like him and John Hume, my little boys grew up never worrying about going to the shops at Christmas or being called terrorists.

Politics needs more David Trimbles.  His death should be a reminder to us all that rhetoric can kill but with compromise and care, change is always possible.

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