BBC Hearts and Minds
22 May 2008
Transcript of BBC NI television interview conducted by Noel Thompson with David Trimble
Noel Thompson: Hello and welcome to the programme. Later we will be looking at the changing face of British Irish relations and whose truth is the whole truth and how to write history when facts are clouded by emotion.
First though, this has been a year for reflection, marking, celebrating or regretting the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. This week George Mitchell has been presiding over another conference looking at the lessons to be learned from the peace process.
Among the speakers, David Trimble, now of course, Lord Trimble of Lisnagarvey in the County of Antrim.
Lord Trimble, you are very welcome to the programme – long time no see – as they say. Have you been celebrating or bemoaning the Good Friday agreement this year?
David Trimble: Oh no, we are celebrating. In fact that is what all these commemorations are about, and what they are marking is the way in which what was put in place ten years ago is now firmly established. I am delighted to see that. As Seamus Mallon said this morning, St Andrew’s is merely Good Friday in drag.
NT: But it cost you your political career, effectively.
DT: Well, maybe, maybe not. I can’t say that I had a disappointing career. To be 15 years in the House of Commons, 10 years as party leader, and to, during the course of that to have had the opportunity to make a real change to things is not something one regrets.
NT: Well, you tied yourself to the stake, some would say, and bear like tried to stay the course, but the course defeated you in the end. I mean, people didn’t follow your vision – that was the problem, wasn’t it.
DT: No, it’s not, it’s not. People have followed, because you see it there today. And if we hadn’t, not just myself and my party colleagues, if we hadn’t done the heavy lifting in the early years, then the peace that people are enjoying, and the stable political environment that they are enjoying, would not be there. There were difficulties during it, and unfortunately in 2005 the electorate, for understandable reasons, decided to send a message to the government and the only way they could do it –
NT: And to the Ulster Unionist Party of course –
DT: The only way they could send the message to the government was by voting against us, and I suppose they can draw consolation from the fact that the message got through, and helped to produce again what we have today –
NT: You see, David –
DT: But look, if you are in politics, you have got to be prepared for that sort of thing, and if you are in politics simply in order to survive, then you are not going to achieve anything, and you are not going to be a success. If you try to do something, then you run the risk of, you know, the difficulties that might occur and the penalties that might be associated with this.
NT: You have written that the UUP and the SDLP couldn’t have predicted that it would in the end be Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness standing at the helm of the new Northern Ireland assembly.
DT: And in 1998 when we made the agreement no-one made that prediction.
NT: Mm. When did you start to make it or to think it possible – 2003?
DT: Oh, well it is actually probably at an earlier stage when one could see quite clearly that this was the game plan of some people in the DUP.
NT: And do you think it was also the game plan of people in the British government. I mean, Tony Blair, Jonathan Powell in his book says that Tony Blair tried to hold on to you as long as possible, but you think that he chucked you off overboard, don’t you.
DT: No, it is much more complex than that. And I have commented, it is difficult to go into this in just a few moments. You find round about, a point round about 2000/01 certain elements, starting with some people in the DFA, spreading to some people in the NIO start to propound this view that the centre ground – the SDLP and the UUP – have done their job – we now need to bring in the extremes, etc, etc; and the view gradually gathers ground within some elements. Powell is right to say that Blair was, you know, resisted this as long as he could. But the difficulty wasn’t what some people were saying in those terms; the difficulty was the fact that the government was failing to achieve progress in getting paramilitaries, in particular republicans, to do their share of the agreement in terms of delivering an entirely peaceful and democratic –
NT: You see the DUP analysis is, you just were too soft and got found out.
DT: No. The situation is that the Blair administration failed to achieve that. When it was achieved, it wasn’t achieved as a result of any effort by the DUP or by Tony Blair.
NT: That’s not the way they see it. It was achieved.
DT: Well, I’m talking about what happened, not what their perception of it is.
NT: Well, your perception of what happened.
DT: It was achieved because republicans were discovering that their retention of criminal activity was hurting them in the south and there was pressure coming on from the States, particularly over policing, and that pressure was being demonstrated through the refusal of visas and that, more than anything else, brought about the ending of the transition. The DUP were passengers in this the whole way through.
NT: Well they stayed outside it, and let you –
DT: They were passengers.
NT: As you put it, do the – well, they were pressing the case, they were the anti-agreement party, they became the party in power, the people followed them; that’s how democracy works.
DT: And now they are pro-agreement.
NT: Well, they say because they have changed it.
DT: Not in any significant way, not in any significant way at all. The substance is exactly the same, and all you have to do is simply look at the make-up of the Executive to see that.
NT: So the public who vote for people and voted the DUP into power, they saw that the DUP was being harder than you. You had gone into government a couple of times, had not managed to persuade republicans to do what you said they were supposed to do, what most people said they were supposed to do, so they just abandoned you.
DT: You are leaving out a few bits, the quite significant fact that we did achieve the beginning of decommissioning, which very many people, including many of the media, said would never happen. We achieved that. That started in 2001, and there were several acts of decommissioning on our watch. So that is the reality of it. Yes, in 2005 the electorate, in the aftermath of the Northern Bank bank robbery wanted to send a message to Blair, and I fully understand the message that they were sending; and I hope it had an effect, and I think it did.
NT: The lessons - George Mitchell is talking this week about the lessons to be learned – you don’t really think there are any lessons there –
DT: Oh, there are –
NT: - except perhaps that governments need to be less flexible when it comes to enforcing agreements.
DT: Well yes, I mean, the whole point of it is, what should have been happening after 99 was, sorry, after 98, was the implementation of the agreement, and the agreement was not properly implemented until last year.
NT: But you again, you accepted Tony Blair’s promises on paper, and on blackboards, about how he would enforce the implementation of the agreement.
NT: Ah, but he didn’t do what he said he would do; even Jonathan Powell would admit that, but you kept thinking that he might, so, again you were at fault.
DT: No, I don’t accept that at all. I think the strategic decisions we took were right, even though there were difficulties, even though things didn’t run perfectly; because if we had not taken those decisions ten years ago, to endorse the agreement, then nothing would have happened. Indeed unionism would have been in a much worse situation then, if there had been a failure of the talks process because of unionist refusal, and that is a hugely significant factor that you are leaving out of account. You are also leaving out of account that the present good situation that has eventuated would not have happened, had we not been prepared to try and make it work. Now, to expect in life today, in any aspect of life, and particularly in politics, that you are able to guarantee 100% success in all you are doing is just plain silly, (NT interrupts) and to criticise me on the basis that we didn’t achieve everything is equally silly. We achieved quite a lot. Yes, it didn’t work out exactly as we had planned, and things got out of sync, but to say that the project failed, I don’t accept that.
NT: So when you look today, or when you looked a year ago at Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness standing at the helm of this new assembly, what were the thoughts going through your head.
DT: I said ‘Good’ and I did say ‘Good’ because when the appropriate legislation went through parliament on the second reading of the St Andrews No 2 Bill, I made it absolutely clear that I welcomed what was happening.
NT: And is your analysis now, could we say, tainted by the tast of sour grapes?
DT: No it is not. I am trying to be as accurate as I can be. I am not spinning anything. I am not making points just because they might appeal, or make me look good. I am trying to deal in a sober way with the analysis of what happened.
NT: OK; David Trimble, I am sorry we must leave it there. Thank you very much indeed.
(22 May 2008)
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