Magazine article The Spectator

Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism

Magazine article The Spectator

Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal of Unionism

Article excerpt

Playing poker in the Last Chance Saloon HIMSELF ALONE: DAVID TRIMBLE AND THE ORDEAL OF UNIONISM by Dean Godson HarperCollins, £35, pp. 1002, ISBN 000257098X

A biography of over 1,000 pages whose subject is the leader of a provincial political party which has five MPs at Westminster and could, if the more alarmist projections from the recent European elections are fulfilled, lose them all to Paisleyites at the next might seem excessive. Yet the story which forms the heart of the book is a fascinating and important one. Godson demonstrates that without Trimble the historic Belfast Agreement and the peace process itself could have long since foundered for lack of Unionist support.

Although the book's subject is David Trimble and the broader 'Unionist family' it provides much new information and many insights into the British, Irish and US dimensions of the Ulster conflict. The deep involvement of the Irish state in public policy in Ulster since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and the subsequent internationalisation of the search for a settlement mean that the travails of the Unionist community cannot be understood in a purely provincial context. Godson has talked to virtually everyone who counts or counted, in London, Dublin, Washington and Belfast.

Despite the author's own anti-Agreement views the rich density of detail means that a reader less hostile to Trimble's pro-Agreement political strategy can find evidence to contradict Godson's often hostile judgments. There is much in the book that refers to the depleted political and ideological resources which Unionism possessed when Trimble won the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party in 1995. It had lost control of the Stormont parliament with the imposition of direct rule by Edward Heath in 1972. At that time Trimble was a member of the radical Vanguard movement, led by the former Unionist cabinet minister, Bill Craig. Vanguard opposed the decision by the leader of the Unionist party, Brian Faulkner, to accept the British government's White Paper in 1973 which proposed a government for Northern Ireland based on power-sharing with nationalists and an 'Irish Dimension' in the form of a Council of Ireland. Trimble was part of the coalition of politicians, paramilitaries and trade unionists behind the Ulster Workers' Council strike which destroyed Ulster's first power-sharing government in 1974.

Godson rightly accords Trimble's Vanguard period great importance for understanding his subsequent trajectory. Predictions by Merlyn Rees, Labour's Northern Ireland Secretary at the time that the strike represented a new Ulster Nationalism, proved wide of the mark. Instead Craig, with Trimble's enthusiastic support, tried to seize the temporary upsurge of Unionist confidence generated by the strike to make a deal with the peaceful nationalists of the SDLP.

Craig's proposal for an emergency coalition between Unionists and Nationalists was rejected by his own party and Unionism would be dominated for the next two decades by the less than imposing figureof Jim Molyneaux. However, the episode revealed a core element in Trimble's thinking: a recognition of the limited options available to Unionists given the growing political and demographic weight of Nationalism and the bipartisan consensus at Westminster that devolution would only be restored to Ulster on the basis of a settlement acceptable to both communities. …

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