Glancing at the political obituaries which have followed the announcement of Ian Paisley’s imminent retirement as First Minister and leader of the DUP, I can’t help but wonder what feelings David Trimble is experiencing watching the demise of a man who expended so much energy destroying him. Surely there must be an element of grim satisfaction as Paisley is forced to fall on his sword after only a year as Trimble’s successor at the helm of Northern Ireland’s Executive.
Trimble was only the last in a succession of unionist leaders whom Paisley destroyed for their attempts to find an accommodation with nationalists. And Trimble retains the distinction of not only suffering political destruction at Paisley’s hands, but then subsequently being forced to suffer the indignity of watching the demagogue assuming his clothes and signing up to a deal which differed only aesthetically from that to which Trimble had agreed.
The campaign Paisley waged against Trimble was nasty, personalised and abusive. Additionally it was extremely damaging to unionism. Paisley’s routing of Trimble was the culmination of a process whereby Paisley’s oppositionism destroyed successive opponents until figuratively he became the last man standing and there was no party left to do the deal, which he had spent his life opposing, other than his own. Paisley’s crowning achievement became the epitome of cynical pragmatism and hypocrisy.
Paisley’s campaign of vilification left Trimble a reviled figure amongst many unionists, forced to limp from Northern Irish politics to the Tory benches of the House of Lords. In many ways the UUP leader was the antithesis of Paisley, thoughtful and reserved (despite his famous temper) where Paisley was blustering and effusive. There is sweet irony in the fact that Paisley’s travails have partly been caused by the very effusiveness which made him a more charismatic character than Trimble. It stuck in unionist gullets to see Paisley glad-handing in expansive fashion with those in Sinn Fein who were responsible for murder and mayhem. It would have been unthinkable for Trimble to have acted in such a fashion.
Perhaps it is therefore a propitious moment for unionists to re-evaluate Trimble’s contribution and contemplate the ironies of his demise. It is my opinion that Trimble is long overdue his rehabilitation given the poison the DUP reserved for a man they termed with characteristic abusiveness ‘the purple turtle’. Whatever his faults, it was Trimble who began to assemble a modern and thoughtful unionist edifice to present to a world which viewed unionist politics as reactionary and anachronistic. And in many ways Trimble DID shift mindsets from a preoccupation with reaction and defence to a more constructive and progressive frame of reference. Under Trimble’s leadership unionism began to set the agenda rather than merely responding to it.
Trimble’s weaknesses were in failing sufficiently to sell his deal to unionists and in being excessively trustful of Tony Blair. Nevertheless the Good Friday Agreement was an excellent deal for unionists. Trimble’s academic eye for constitutional law enabled him to copperfasten the Union and roll back the most perfidious aspects of the Anglo Irish Agreement. The symbolic concessions this required were hard for many to stomach, but Trimble put the Union first and in this respect his unionism was impeccable.
The unpopularity which Trimble suffered subsequently cannot be separated from the vicious campaign which Paisley led against him. As the First Minister is forced to step down and his duplicity becomes more widely acknowledged it is necessary for unionists to re-examine the opprobrium they heaped on a former unionist leader’s head at Paisley’s behest.