Will David Trimble Join the Tories?

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), July 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

Will David Trimble Join the Tories?


Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)


Amid talk of civil war, John Lloyd hears Ulster's First Minister discuss imminent resignation, Sinn Fein's fraudulent election, and a possible change of party

When I talked to David Trimble last Tuesday, his resignation as First Minister of Northern Ireland was -- in his own mind, at least -- certain. "I don't imagine that the Sinners" (as he calls Sinn Fein, perhaps relishing the pun) "will do anything before 1 July" -- the date on which he had said he would resign if there was no substantive progress on the decommissioning of its arms dumps. "They have been hoping that the Unionist Party would resolve the problem for them by removing me from leadership last weekend; or they were hoping for a fudge. But I am still leader: and there is no fudge."

In this, he seems almost serene. When he held post-election talks at Downing Street with Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, he brusquely dismissed their efforts to find a compromise. What, it was put to him, if we get the "Sinners" to give some absolutely firm timetable for future decommissioning? Look, said Trimble, they promised that last May -- when the government, with the agreement of all the parties, extended the deadline for decommissioning to June 2001. In talking of "firm timetables", you would simply be asking them to give a promise that they would do something they had already promised to do -- without effect. No.

The remaining faint hope of movement from the IRA Army Council--on which the leaders of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, both sit -- rests with the "contacts" between General John de Chastelaine, the Canadian officer whose commission is charged with verifying the handing over of weapons from all paramilitaries. "If there had been anything -- the slightest sign of movement -- de Chastelaine would have issued a report. There may be a report between now and the weekend. But I do not expect it will show substantive movement."

With this resignation, the Northern Ireland "peace process" will move into its most unpredictable and dangerous period in the three-plus years since the Belfast, or "Good Friday", Agreement was signed in April 1998. One of Trimble's closest advisers told me that he feared civil war. If, as is constitutionally laid down, the resignation, followed by an unsuccessful search for a substitute first minister, ushers in an early autumn election in the province, the hard-line parties, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, will again increase their votes. Trimble expects that is what will happen: and the British government "appears to have no clue what to do".

In this bleak landscape, however, Trimble walks with the conviction of a politician who sees himself as a large player in British as well as Northern Irish politics.

He has clearly been holding quite serious talks with leading Conservative figures about a future relationship which may involve joining their shadow cabinet. A story to that effect appeared in Monday's Irish Times, under the byline of the paper's London editor, Frank Millar, a former Unionist Party official who rarely errs. When I put it to Trimble, he smiled, and said: "Well, I have a formula for this, that I have no intention of relinquishing the leadership and there is much to do in Northern Ireland." When I noted that was not a denial, he said: "Well, well."

I asked Lord Cranborne, the former leader of the Tories in the Lords, a close friend of Trimble's and the man named in Millar's story as the conduit for these talks, if the contacts were true. He said he had not seen Trimble since before the election. Not a denial, either. The best version, constructed from those close to him speaking on terms of anonymity, would seem that he has been talking to senior Tories; but the idea of taking a shadow cabinet post is, as one put it, "a bit previous."

On this, he does give some details. "Would it not be a good thing if a bright lad from the Falls Road"--the heart of Catholic working-class Belfast -- "could rise to the British cabinet, as one from Scotland or Wales could? …

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