Thursday, 6 March 2008

Will Paisley's demise see the rehabilitation of Trimble?

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.


Kloot said...

The campaign Paisley waged against Trimble was nasty, personalised and abusive. Additionally it was extremely damaging to unionism.

Sums up Paisleys legacy. All of his campaigns were nasty, personalised and abusive and all of them did in the long run damage Unionism. However, what cannot be overlooked is that his campaigns, at times, fell on interested ears in the Unionist community and he attracted alot of support for those campaigns.

Chekov said...

Undeniably you are correct Kloot. Paisley's demotic, rabble-rousing, Ulster nationalist style won him much support. I will say that only in the very recent past, after moderating his outbursts, was he able to claim a majority of unionist opinion lay with him.

Hernandez said...

I used to love it when Trimble lost his temper! Would be great to see him back in the game.

Chekov said...

I don't think we'll see Trimble back in front line politics Hernandez, unless he decides to 'unravel the Glen'. It's really his reputation I want rehabilitated.

Andy Wilson said...

Good piece,

As a point of information, I believe it was a former Ulster Unionist ‘baby barrister’ and former Trimble acolyte who posts on Slugger O’Toole as ‘Darth Rumsfeld’ who coined the ‘Purple Turtle’ phrase.

And oh how the Dundela Avenue children laughed.

They are not laughing now. Not now that ‘Darth’ has turned his sarcastic, but often forensically accurate vitriol upon ‘The Oule Croc’ and ‘Punt’.

Chekov said...

Interesting Andy. Actually having wondered exactly what Trimble would make of Paisley's demise I see that the man himself has actually been speaking on the subject.

David Trimble said last night he was convinced that Ian Paisley was " pushed from office" by the pragmatists within the DUP.
"Ian has obviously lost credibility," Lord Trimble told the Belf ast Telegraph in his first in-depth interview since this week's announcement that the First Minister is stepping down after just one year in office.
He added: "I'm not surprised. It was obvious at the last General Election (in 2005) that DUP were not being, shall we say, transparent in their canvass.
"I told people on the doorstep that Ian Paisley was about to do a deal with Sinn Fein - a deal that would be the identical twin of the Good Friday Agreement.
"His supporters said he would never do that, but my predictions came true in a very short time, and the 'Chuckle Brothers' images of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are the outworkings of that."
When asked had Dr Paisley been on an 'ego trip' as First Minister - in that it was felt he had to lead every organisation he joined, like the Free Presbyterian Church and the DUP - Mr Trimble replied: "I simply don't know. You'd have to ask Ian Paisley that.
"But the fact that he was summarily removed as Moderator of the Free Presbyterians, and that the pragmatists wanted him out as party leader and First Minister show his actions since his about-turn have not gone down well.
"I feel that his failure to explain his change of heart to his supporters hastened his demise.
"In normal circumstances, I feel the time was fast approaching for him to step down, anyway - perhaps age, perhaps he was an opposition politician, rather than a hands-on ruling politician."
Lord Trimble said that all the discontent was crystallised in the recent Dromore by-election result where the intervention of Jim Allister's Traditional Ulster Voice (TUV) grouping combined with the UUP to deny the Paisleyites their expected victory.
"The bottom line is the Ulster Unionists won that seat," said Lord Trimble. "People knew that we had been honest with them all along. DUP weren't, and ended up settling on a deal that was a mirror image of the Belfast Agreement. People aren't fools. The pragmatists in DUP realised that fact, so Ian Paisley had to go."
He insisted, though, that the Allister element would not amount to much in Ulster politics.
"Jim Allister doesn't have a viable alternative strategy for Northern Ireland," he claimed. "Peter Robinson - or whoever takes over from Ian Paisley - will continue to work with Sinn Fein. I always said the two parties would find a lot in common.
"But it won't be so upfront. It will be business-like, without the 'Chuckle Brothers' element."
He added: "This is, of course, a golden opportunity for a renaissance of the UUP.
"We were honest and open with the electorate. DUP were not, and I believe that will be reflected in future elections.
"The Good Friday Agreement removed the Constitution fears from the political process, and the violence has ended.
"Normal politics will slowly evolve, and in that context, Ian Paisley's ways are in the past."
On the Ian Paisley jnr influence on the overall scenario, Lord Trimble said he did not want to comment in any great depth.
"Ian Junior's actions were something of a sideshow," he stated. " I don't think they affected the overall political scene."
He insisted he did not feel bitter over the events of the past decade - from 1998 when Ian Paisley and his followers shouted at the gate when the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated, "and when Tony Blair made promises that he never kept, that Paisley and DUP would be sidelined".
"I can honestly say that the deal we struck has now stuck," he reflected.
"And if Tony Blair didn't topple Ian Paisley, then his own party colleagues did it.
"The pity is that it took so long for the Good Friday Agreement - aka the St Andrews Agreement - to take hold.
"Meanwhile, I have moved on and am enjoying my role in the House of Lords, and as a sort of emissary for the Conservative Party."
He concluded: "It has to be said that Ian Paisley has had quite an influence in Northern Ireland politics over the past four decades - from the 'O'Neill Must Go' phase to the 'Trimble Out' era.
"Most of it, however, has been negative, and when he was called upon to be positive, he failed to measure up.
"It's one thing shouting from the political sideslines - it's quite another thing actually governing a country.
"I lasted four years as First Minister. He lasted one.
"And I would ask a final question - would Terence O'Neill have shared power with the IRA while he was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland?
"I leave that one hanging in the air..."