It Was an Historic Day.The First since 1918 That the People of All Ireland Spoke about How They Would Share Their Island.Not Just for Themselves but for Their Children; Northern Ireland, Peace

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

It Was an Historic Day.The First since 1918 That the People of All Ireland Spoke about How They Would Share Their Island.Not Just for Themselves but for Their Children; Northern Ireland, Peace


Byline: PATRICK COLLINS

AS THE crucial numbers rumbled around the King's Hall yesterday afternoon, a flood of relief swept across the face of David Trimble. Victory had been won, anarchy had been averted and a singular kind of courage had been rewarded by the people of Northern Ireland.

So his back was slapped and his hand was shaken and he smiled his satisfaction as the figures sunk in. Seventy-one per cent to 29 per cent in favour of the Good Friday Agreement was not merely a success, it was a gloriously authentic triumph.

Because he is a staid man, a horn-rimmed lawyer who prefers footnotes and parentheses to joyous generalisations, he refused to revel in the triumph.

Instead he announced rather primly that he 'hoped to create a society that everyone will be comfortable with'.

But he was warmly aware of the scale of his achievement. Widely scorned, viciously reviled and cruelly deserted by six of his ten MPs, he had nonetheless delivered what few had thought possible.

The Unionist leader had challenged his people to think the unthinkable.

And the wary, cautious, endlessly suspicious sons and daughters of Ulster had accepted that daunting challenge. They had voted for reconciliation, for the realisation that the world has moved on and that they must keep pace with the changes. And it was David Trimble who had brought them to this brave reality.

It was he, above all, who had persuaded the Protestant people of Ulster to say Yes.

Not all of them, of course. Not by a worryingly long way. For ancient hatreds are too entrenched to permit anything like a clean sweep of hearts and minds. No matter. An outcome which had seemed almost impossible just a few short weeks ago has been delivered. And only Trimble truly knows the price that he had to pay.

He was installed as leader because he was widely regarded as a hard man, one who was not averse to wagging a finger at British Cabinet Ministers or indulging in bellicose capering with the dinosaurs of the Orange Order.

He was not, you heard, a politician who would 'sell the pass'.

And certainly he was striking some perkily aggressive postures on the morning of polling day.

Bristling with nervous energy, he gathered his troops at the Unionist HQ on Glengall Street and led them down the narrow staircase, past the portraits of Enoch Powell, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, who pointed a finger and assured us that 'Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley'.

Fifteen minutes later we were on the Shankill Road in the Protestant heartland, and it didn't feel a bit like Finchley. There were few people about, fewer still who supported the Yes campaign. Chattering cheerfully, the Trimble party moved past the Prisoners' Aid and Post-Conflict Resettlement Group, past Discount Drink, Len's Kebabs and Knitters Kneeds. As the member for leafy Upper Bann, Trimble seemed uncomfortable with this degree of urban deprivation; uncomfortable, too, with the cries of 'Sell-out!' coming from hostile strangers. But he pressed on and was briefly encouraged by a red saloon car with loudspeaker attached. 'A Yes vote is a Jesus vote. Vote Yes.

Vote Jesus,' boomed the van. Moments later, another van approached with a different message: 'A Yes vote is a vote for the IRA, the Commies and the racketeers,' insisted the van. A young girl crossed the Shankill.

'Bastard!' she yelled at the driver.

Trimble looked on hopelessly at this Ulster confusion of the sacred and the mundane.

ON THE corner of Crimea Street, I suggested that the whole Yes campaign represented a remarkable gamble on his part, that failure to carry the day would have reduced the province to something worse than chaos. He shook his head.

'I'm not a gambler,' he said. 'I don't like that choice of word. I'm simply making a judgment, I'm saying Yes because I believe it's right. …

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