Transcript of BBC 'On the Ropes', John Humphries, July 12th, 2005


Every leader of a political party is on the ropes at some time or another – the opposition want to throw you out of power and there is always someone in your own party waiting to stab you in the back to take your job – but if you lead a party in Northern Ireland there’s another dimension to that and it means that you are never off the ropes. The threat of real violence and real hatred that goes beyond the usual party differences, David Trimble can perhaps attest to that.

On many levels he has been hugely successful; he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, except of course that it wasn’t real peace as we understand it on this side of the water, and many in his own party never forgave him for what they saw as a sell-out to the terrorists. In the end the voters deserted him too and he lost the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. David Trimble, why did you become an Ulster Unionist? Can we just talk a little bit about what happens to a middle class boy in Northern Ireland, who is obviously bright, getting a good education, going to a mixed school as you did, what happens to turn you into the sort of politician that you were to become?

DT: I think part of the reason as to why people are confused and ask questions such as the one you have asked is a failure to appreciate what the basic nature of the situation is in Northern Ireland. You will find it easier to understand if you think of the clash that is there as not being primarily tribal or religious but being National – between people who view themselves as British and people who view themselves as Irish.

Then, if you ask the question, how do people acquire a National Identity? Why do you regard yourself as Welsh, or British? It’s something you don’t even think about and the people of NI are like that too. At a very early age they absorb a national identity – they get that from their family, from their parents, from the wider family circle, from their immediate social contacts even before they are thinking seriously about it. They then find themselves in a rather unusual situation in that their identity is not either fully recognised or legitimated or is under threat one way or another and that is because they’re living in an area where the population is not nationally homogenous. Now this seems unusual in a British context, but it is very normal in a European context. If you were to go around the continent of Europe you would find scores of places where either now or in the recent past you have had territory occupied by people of different national identities.

JH: You didn’t mention religion in that answer?

DT: I deliberately didn’t mention religion because it is religion that is misleading people. Now, there is a high level of religious observance in NI and religion is an important factor socially. The other fact that one has to mention is that religion has played a large part in the formation of national identity, and that is true in England, Wales and Scotland just as much as it is in Ireland, North or South. It is also true in most of Europe as well, but if you think of it purely in religious terms then you will find a lot of things difficult to understand, and I think your initial question to me was coming from that background and that is why I wanted to paint in the rest of the picture, because I think that is hugely important.

JH: But none the less if you had asked me to define what’s going on there, I would have said at the heart of it, it is a religious divide and I’m probably a little better informed than many people, so what explains my feeling?

DT: Let’s go back to something you said about the school that I went to being mixed – there was a degree of mixture in it, there were Catholics in the same class as me at the Grammar school I went to.

JH: Which does not apply of course to all school in NI, most of them are segregated.

DT: But the Catholics who were in the class with me were English Catholics whose parents were working in NI and whose parents sent them to a school where 95%+ of the pupils were Protestant because if they sent them to a Catholic school they would then acquire a different nationality.

JH: Though there are – how can I put this – genuinely mixed schools in NI?

DT: There are, there always have been a few but not very many and I do like to say in this context that one of the great lost opportunities of NI’s history was in 1924 when the first minister of education, The Marquis of Londonderry, tried to introduce a single unified education system, that would be a compulsorily integrated education system – that’s what he tried to introduce in 1924, unfortunately he failed because all the churches were against him.

JH: Had he succeeded the history of Northern Ireland might have been different.

DT: Undoubtedly would have been – very different.

JH: So what as a young man and as a boy was your attitude to – I’m going to call them Catholics even though you will probably prefer me to call them Nationalists – to people on the other side of the divide from you?

DT: Well, I grew up in Bangor and Bangor was in those days, still is, very Presbyterian. There were Catholics who I knew and socialised with, they were predominantly middle class Catholics and well to do. One of them is now a High Court judge and another one is a very distinguished broadcaster, but I’ll not go any further than that – but one was aware in mixing that there were differences and one fo the informal social rules that one observed at a very early stage in NI is that in entering a room where there are other people, one of the first things you try to do is try to work out whether the room is mixed or homogenous. If it is mixed then what that means is that you do not mention religion or politics unless it is done as a response to what someone else does, or is done in a context which is very obviously not threatening.

JH: You became politically active in your thirties – you were pursuing a successful academic career at Queen’s University of Belfast as a successful lawyer. Why (a) did you enter politics and (b) why did you enter what is now regarded and was, as I suppose at the time, a pretty hard line organisation – the Vanguard Party.

DT: It was the onset of what we call the troubles, 1969/69, when we had first of all the street disorders associated with the movement calling itself the Civil Rights Association. That came to me – this is 1968, I was 24 – that came to me as quite a shock and what I found most difficult to cope with in that shock, is all the things that were being said about discrimination in the City of Londonderry and it just so happened that my mother came from Londonderry and a close relative of hers who we referred to as Uncle Jack was Mayor of Londonderry. He was active politically and was Mayor for 3 or 4 years in the late 1950s / early 1960s. These allegations were being made, you know, about quite reprehensible behaviour and I knew Uncle Jack and I knew him to be a person of personally irreproachable character and this didn’t figure. Then you get the prorogation of Stormont by Edward Heath in 1972, what I think was a huge mistake politically – that’s the abolition of the Stormont parliament which happened by stages starting in 1972 and the introduction of something called ‘direct rule’ which was quite a novel form of administration in terms of British History.

JH: Which was rule from Westminster?

DT: Look, the way in which it is done is the problem – what we had before 1920 was not direct rule as it operates now and as I looked around in 1972/73 who to me seemed to have a coherent explanation of what was going on and approach to the matter and it seemed to me that of the leading Unionist politicians at that time the only person who seemed to be talking sense was Bill Craig, who had been a leading member of the Ulster Unionist Party, Minister of Home Affairs and also Minister of Development – he then formed this Vanguard movement and then left the Ulster Unionist Party to form a separate party and that to me seemed to be the best approach to the situation and that’s where I went.

JH: That marked you out in the minds of many people then and since as a hard-liner.

DT: Again, I think that there is a misapprehension that people think that Liberalism is soft. Liberalism isn’t soft. Liberalism in the historical, classical sense can also be tough minded.

JH: Tough minded in the context.

DT: It means when you have got a situation of devolved conflict of being able to actually cope with it.

JH: Cope with it how? Cope with it with the ‘B’ Specials?

DT: The situation that we had in the late 60’s and early 70’s was a situation of civil disorder followed by a terrorist campaign – the civil disorder morphing into a terrorist campaign. We obviously had to respond to that terrorist campaign.

JH: Had you responded to it differently, had you said the way to deal with the civil disorder would be to very quickly redress the balance to restore civil rights to those people who believe, with some justification many people would say, that they had been deprived of their civil rights, then, again, the history of Northern Ireland could have been very different.

DT: The object of the terrorist campaign when it came was to detach Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and to create an all-Ireland state, and what ignited the terrorist campaign was not the disadvantage but the desire to exploit these problems in order to bring about a constitutional change, and that’s the reality of it then and now.

JH: But they had to have the support of a large section of the population – the question remains whether they would have had that support if, for instance, there had been Catholics in the Police force, if there are been more Catholics employed in Harland & Wolfe shipyards and so on.

DT: Yes, look, there were some problems but they did not – I think it is hugely important on this – it was my view then and it is my view now that the levels of disadvantage did not create the terrorist campaign we have had.

JH: The Vanguard Party came to an end and merged with the Ulster Unionists – did you regard yourself, and I know you don’t like the expression although a lot of people applied it to you – did you see yourself as a hardliner?

DT: Many people when I joined the UUP in 1978 regarded me as a dangerous Liberal and for a very simple reason. Craig too realised the need for an accommodation politically and indeed pursued one. It came to a head in the constitutional convention of 1975. I was elected to the convention, it was an elected body, I was elected to it as part of a loose coalition of the then Unionist parties, the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party, Dr. Paisley’s DUP, and Bill Craig’s Vanguard – all three were operating together under the title of the United Ulster Unionist Council and Craig tried to do a deal with the leading moderate Nationalist party, the SDLP.

It came very close to success, very close indeed to success, but failed and Craig, myself and a few others were expelled from the UUUC as being the people who had supported the idea of forming a coalition between Unionists and Nationalists to administer Northern Ireland under renewed devolution. One of the amusing things I had when I came to Westminster in 1990 – as you say there were a number of people who thought that I was some sort of a hard man, is that within Westminster that misapprehension disappeared within a matter of weeks, if not months, from contact.

JH: So what were you doing - because that misapprehension was reinforced -when we saw you at Drumcree in was it 1995 holding hands with Dr Paisley who was a hard man and who is a hard man?

DT: To quote another editorial because, in the 1995 Drumcree events, the Orangemen there organised a rally, in which I took part, and the Irish News the next morning reported me as having made a speech of impeccable moderation.

JH: So what were you doing holding hands with Ian Paisley?

DT: I represented Portadown. I was, and still am, a member of the Orange Order. I walked with the Portadown Orangemen. They then found themselves in a situation which they did not seek and then other people came to offer assistance, as did Dr Paisley and they were not going to turn him away as he was, and still is, a very popular man amongst the Protestant working class who form a very significant proportion of the Orange Order.

JH: But a million miles away from you in terms of your approach to politics in Northern Ireland?

DT: Oh yes, I mean he had been responsible for me being expelled from the UUUC in 1975 but one thing that I always bore in mind, again it was a saying of Bill’s, is never falling out with another loyalist as you never know when you are going to have to work with them again.

JH: The fact is that you signed an agreement that Ian Paisley and many other Unionists in Northern Ireland thought was a complete and absolute sell-out and what I am interested in establishing is whether you, David Trimble, had changed or whether they had changed?

DT: Neither, neither, people weren’t actually using that term then in 1998 and the scepticism that existed within a significant section of the Unionist electorate and within the Unionist parties was scepticism as to whether it was going to work.

JH: Not whether it was a sell-out but whether it was a practical thing?

DT: The deep scepticism was whether Republicans were genuine and whether they were going to honour the commitments that that agreement contained to delivering peace and operating by exclusively peaceful means, by decommissioning their weapons and winding down the private army, and there was deep scepticism within society as to whether that was going to happen. And in 1998 in terms of people who were opposed to the Agreement who voted no in the referendum, the bulk of them were reflecting that scepticism – yes, there would have been a hard core of no voters who were ‘no’ from a very simple, basic – I’m sorry to say a rather bigoted approach to the matter that they are not going to do a deal with them whatever happens, and you know that’s unfortunately the case but that is a minority of Unionists, that is a minority of Unionists.

JH: You talk about, as it were, those who were opposed to the Agreement for gut reasons, because these are the bigots. Ian Paisley, is he a bigot?

DT: I am not going to make judgements on individuals. As Oliver Cromwell once said ‘that he looks into no man’s mind’ –

JH: But you know Dr. Paisley very well.

DT: And there are many aspects of his character and I am not going to go into that. I leave it to others to form their own views and I will do this with regard to other individuals as well, not just him.

JH: When you signed that Agreement, just give me an idea of what it was like that Good Friday in 1998 in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair talked about the hand of history on his shoulder – was that how you felt?

DT: Well, as Mr Blair said before saying that he realised that this was not the time for sound bites and I entirely agreed with that sentiment – it was not. Look, that came at the end of a negotiation that had been going on for years – going into an intense final phase that lasted for weeks – it was physically draining. The next day I went down to the cash point because I needed some money and could I remember my PIN number, I couldn’t. I tried every combination, I hunted around every scrap of paper where I thought I might have made a note of it. It was four days before the PIN number came back to me so I think that shows some degree of tiredness.

JH: Did you have doubts right up until the last moment?

DT: Of course! Of course! Because one knew that this was a matter that it was not just one thing that was going to change, there was the matter of huge issues left unresolved in the Agreement. There were areas of the Agreement where there was uncertainty as to how things were going to work out and I knew that and indeed I had used that as a technique for resolving some difficulties during the final week’s negotiation – there’s one wee point which I do love to point out – I wish the Agreement had been signed – it wasn’t! We had a voting process and in that voting process the Republicans abstained – if it had been a signing matter I would dearly love to know at what point they would have signed even if today they still would sign the document we call the Agreement.

JH: So the Belfast Agreement was never signed?

DT: It was voted on, we operated on the basis that there had to be a sufficient consensus and so that is a hugely important piece of background to the whole situation that the Republicans did not that day vote for the Agreement, and then you have got to look at their subsequent behaviour and say at what point did they actually declare their adherence to the entire agreement or have they been engaged in just a tactical exploitation of it.

JH: The agreement was agreed, I can’t say signed, and right from the beginning it was pretty clear that things were going to go wrong.

DT: It was clear from the beginning that things were going to be difficult, it was not clear that they were going to go wrong. If it was clear that it was going to go wrong I would not have gone down that path.

JH: You were regarded as the ultimate villain of the piece by some of your, I suppose, erstwhile friends in Unionism because what you did was sit down in government with men some of whom had murdered Unionists, had committed acts of terrorism, and were holding on to weapons. Do you now have any misgivings at what you did?

DT: I thought seriously about this and I address it publicly at the very first session of the NI Assembly in 1998. There were two things I said then which I still agree with and I still regard as hugely important – I said that there were people in this room in the Assembly who had done terrible things in the past, but they weren’t all in one corner of the room.

JH: In other words there were Unionists who had done terrible things as well?

DT: Yes and some of them in the room were prepared to acknowledge that. The second thing I said, and I was speaking not just personally but from the tradition from which I come and in this case I will say religious as well as political, and I said that we have never said that because people have a past they can’t have a future.

JH: But even allowing for that there are those who say that you were effectively a dupe of the British Government?

DT: I will not say, and it’s not just a matter of I will not say, I do not think that we were wrong to go down the path that we did. I thought that it was hugely important that we try to make something like this work and that we give people opportunities, we put them to the test and if they failed the test so be it but for us not to go down, to say that I’m not going to take a chance on this because I don’t entirely true the other person – it didn’t seem to me that I was entitled to do that, or that it was wise for me to do that. You are never going to get certainty in life, you are never going to have a situation in life, particularly in politics, where you are dealing with entirely trustworthy people at all points.

JH:Did you entirely trust Tony Blair, do you entirely trust him now?

DT: I am not going to personalise this – there are not many people that I deal with that I entirely trust and that goes for people in my own party, people in other parties, people in Government and all the rest of it – it is foolish to proceed in politics, particularly the situation I was in to proceed on a basis of trust because you do not know what pressures the other chap is going to be under. He may be the best person in the world, you may have a very good relationship with him, but he’s in a different position from you subject to other pressures and to other considerations, so you have got to take out insurance which we did.

JH: And where we are today is that from leading the majority party the Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, you are out of office entirely, your party has only one MP, we have no devolved government and we have stalemate. Has it been worth it?

DT: The Agreement, while it has not been fully implemented and not fully successful, has permanently changed the context, political and in other contexts as well, and if one was going to draw up a balance sheet I would say on balance that yes it has been worthwhile. Yes, I now find myself no longer a member of parliament, no longer leader, but in March of 1998 I had to take a decision as to whether I went for it or I played safe and the prospect that I faced then if things went negatively is that I could lose the leadership in 1998 – I could be out then without actually having been able to change things. Now seven years later I ran out of road. I lasted longer than I thought I was going last in 1998, and in the interval we have made major changes for the better.

JH: But you personally are, unless you have plans for a come-back, are politically dead.

DT: Ah, I’m out of office now that is true but I won’t endorse the particular stark terms that you used. Everybody has a sell-by date and that’s true in whatever sort of walk of life you are in, and I have been in a rather bruising one over the last decade or so. I’m one of the longer-lasting leaders of Ulster Unionism in terms of time and I can also say that in terms of what we have done I am one of the more successful ones – but we are where we are now and where we are now yes, there are judgements of mine may have contributed to it, but to come back to the point the primary reason why the process ran into the difficulties that it did was because of the failure of Republicans to adhere to the principles set out in the Agreement and, secondarily, because of the failure of the British Government to properly police those principles.

JH: Your successor Reg Empey said that Tony Blair had broken promises to you, is that right?

DT: One of the difficulties about politics is that you find yourself from time to time having to eat yours words when the circumstances aren’t just what they were and Winston Churchill famously observed that it never gave him indigestion when he had to do it – and it is possible to point to periods where words uttered by the Prime Minister had not been fully acted upon in the sense that they were understood at the time they were uttered.

JH: That’s loyally answered.

DT: That is true not just of NI but in other matters as well. I’m walking round this because I’m not going to get engaged in reflecting on an individual’s character and I’m extending to the Prime Minister the same courtesy that I extended to Ian Paisley earlier in this interview.

JH: It’s been a difficult time to put it mildly. You have had the most extraordinary career in politics, its hard to imagine a more interesting and a more dangerous one in all sorts of senses – dangerous politically, but dangerous physically as well, have you ever been frightened for yourself, scared for yourself or your family?

DT: Oh yes of course there have been occasions when one’s been worried and there have been occasions too that one knew one had good reason to be worried.

JH: Did you carry a gun?

DT: I did for a while and then I ceased to do so.

JH: What was the worst bit of it all or has been the worst bit of it all?

DT: Oh, I’d probably give you a different answer everyday to that one question as to what has been the worst bit of it all. No, I do not like to dwell on the negativities of it. Dwelling on the past in that sense is not helpful.

JH: I was going to say that most people if you asked them for the caricature of the Northern Irish politician they would say they live in the past.

DT: And history is my hobby and I think back about things but in personal terms I try to think back purely from the point of view of what do I learn from what happened rather than what am I going to dwell on and what am I going to feel bitter about.

JH: And what have you learned about your old enemies, the hard men of the IRA – have they changed as well?

DT: Where they are as individuals I leave it for them to, you know, to make clearer to sort out. I have no doubt about some of the very terrible things that people have done – I also know that whether people got into a situation which led to them doing terrible things was as much an accident of birth and geography. Now I do not know how I would have responded had I been subject to those pressures – I am not adopting a determinist approach, but people are still responsible for what they did, and how they reacted to it, and if they have done things, as undoubtedly they have done, they have now a responsibility to put things right, which I hope they do.

JH: David Trimble, many thanks.

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