Trimble: a biography by Henry McDonald

(Bloomsbury Books, London, March 2000. Hardback, 348 pages, £16-99. ISBN : 0747544522; paperback, £8-99, ISBN : 0747553157.)

In some sense, this former BBC Northern Ireland Security Correspondent and writer for the Sunday Times, currently attached to the Observer and a contributor to the Spectator, deals with the trials and tribulations of the people of the Six Counties interwoven with the background and role played by David Trimble in Unionist politics.
Trimble and other Unionists have had to realise how small in importance they really are in the scheme of things since they are no longer of strategic value to the defence of the UK as a whole.
This was clearly spelt out in documents issued by the Conservatives under John Major, supported by Labour in opposition, that Britain had no economic or strategic interest in maintaining the present constitutional position and that it was solely the business of the people of Northern Ireland as to whether or not they wished to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Consequently the relationship between them is held together by ties of kinship and history, its economic significance together with defence downgraded drastically from its prominence in World Wars One and two.
So when Trimble and other players within Unionism rub shoulders with leaders of other nations such as the USA and the UK they have an inflated sense of importance and relevance as they strut the world stage hoping that some of the limelight focused on world politicians will spill over and remain with them in their Lilliputian domain.
It is difficult for those steeped in Unionism, banners, symbols and folklore, who proclaim their Britishness (more British than the British), retaining long past its use by date a settler mentality of superiority over the natives, to accept that the world has moved on leaving them in a time warp of 17th/18th century dimensions.
The 'Ulster is British' mind set, personified by the fulminations of Trimble's rival in Northern Ireland's political firmament, Ian Paisley, seems to linger in in the mind of the boy David's thoughts and outlook as McDonald shows at times in this biography of the Ulster Unionist Party leader as he makes his journey through the intricacies of the undergrowth of the Six County political jungle.
Several times, as McDonald shows, Trimble has made common cause (though he may on reflection regret it) with the Democratic Unionist Party leader, the Bull Frog of the Belfast Marches, the mentor of the sectarian violence (which still plagues Belfast) and confrontations since the 1960s who has carefully avoided direct connections with Loyalist paramilitaries yet at the same time remaining very influential on their thinking and allegiances.
McDonald, I think, stretches too far when he equates, even in the political sense, Drumcree, Hebron, Yitzak Rabin and David Trimble, for Northern Ireland, despite the ferment and mayhem of the past three decades, is not of strategic or military significance or as dangerous as the Israeli – Palestine issue.
He relates how, as it were separating his role as Unionist politician from that of his legal and academic persona, Trimble intervened to obtain study rights for one of his former students (attached to the Marxist Official IRA) who was interned in the early 70s. Trimble saw the Prison Governor to arrange facilities and gave the internee tutorials once a week in the prison and when he was freed showed no animosity to the student when he returned to his studies at Queens University.
The book outlines how Trimble went through the gamut of the Vanguard Movement led by William Craig, supported the Ulster workers Strike against the Power Sharing executive as a backroom adviser and how by a strange quirk or convolution of fate he is now First Minister in another Power Sharing executive, albeit set up by an agreement endorsed by the electorate in both the northern and southern jurisdictions.
McDonald makes comparisons with Harold McClusker, Trimble's predecessor in the Upper Bann seat which I don't think fit very well. I myself had some correspondence with McClusker on the question of proportional representation. The former MP was more inclined towards the Labour Party than Trimble and I recall that he said that if he was in mainland politics he would be classified as right wing Labour (as it was then).
This biography traces Trimble's passage through various Unionist combinations, splits and schisms as he rides the Orange surf managing to stay on board and comes to lead the largest section of the Unionist politically dedicated in the population, trying to avoid being knocked off by waterlogged dissidents like Burnside or Donaldson or beaten to the shore by Paisley and his deputy, Robinson.
Chapter 5 is headed, 'A Man for all Factions', which personifies Trimble in his attempt to establish himself and as he now realises he only leads by a short head and not very securely at that as he faces next year's election. In fact his future could well depend on Sinn Féin's success in dominating the Nationalist political scene and leading the Provisional IRA to more specific decommissioning and even a declaration that 'The War is Over'.
However, with the outbreak of sectarian conflict in East and North Belfast Trimble has both a problem and an opportunity to show that he can influence the scene positively and improve his standing in the Unionist population (who are a bit shaky on the Belfast Agreement) and ease the fears of Catholic and Nationalist citizens, particularly in Belfast.
Personally I didn't think the picture McDonald paints will enlighten many people and even those with an 'Ulster' background like myself will not gain much from reading the book more than they have gleaned over the years. It only confirms that Trimble is uncertain about much of what or where he stands.
The biography is an outline of a composite character, leaning into the wind as it blows, unsure of his position, which to be fair (if I may mix my metaphors) from a Unionist perspective is on shifting sands.
The old saying, "If I was going there I wouldn't start from here", comes to mind, but here we are and Trimble needs to make his mind up as to where he wants or intends to go. My advice to him is that the Good Friday Agreement has determined the way and the companions with whom he will have to travel. So stop the manoeuvring, get the show on the road and on the journey shake off the shackles and hooks of history upon which we are impaled.

© Samuel H. Boyd, 30 August 2002.

Samuel H. Boyd

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