The Debatable Land #27: The last great British statesman?
David Trimble and the necessary - but difficult - price of peace
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Of Peace and Sacrifice
I love this photograph of David Trimble and his family must have loved it too, since it was printed on the order of service for his funeral this week. It is always useful to be reminded that there is more to politicians’ lives than their public persona. Or, at any rate, this is true of the best of them.
And David Trimble was one of the best. An unlikely, even improbable, hero perhaps and certainly the kind who would have scoffed at that label but, in the end, quietly, doggedly, courageously, a hero nonetheless. The United Kingdom has not produced many politicians meriting the title “statesman” in recent years. David Trimble was one of them.
So, there he is, photographed some time in the 1970s and looking like someone who belonged on the Italian riviera not the Garvaghy Road. Who knew David Trimble could be - there is no obvious other word for it - cool? Perhaps that is a retrospective judgement of a kind which might not have been apparent, even to Trimble’s friends and family, at the time but then much of life is retrospective, isn’t it? The value or reality of something may only be apparent once it is no longer available.
Trimble was not, by his own admission, always an easy man. Prickly and pink-skinned he could look angrier than he was but he could often be angry enough. When he became leader of the Ulster Unionists, expectations were low. Trimble’s starring role at the various sieges of Drumcree - scarlet-hued this time and sporting the sash of the Orange Order - persuaded many that he could not, would not, be the kind of man with whom anyone could do business. Back then, in 1995, liberal opinion in Britain and Ireland alike was appalled by David Trimble.
Well, fashionable opinion was wrong. It is impossible to know if a different Unionist leader would or could have shown Trimble’s courage and imagination. All that can be said is that David Trimble led his party - and his people - with the amount of courage and imagination the times required.
Peace in Northern Ireland has been a broad success and a narrow tragedy. It required successive leaps of faith and collective decision-making. It could not succeed unless all parties agreed to move simultaneously. But it was also based on unbalanced sacrifices because it operated on two distinct levels: the practical and the psychological.
In return for near-complete psychological victory, Unionists were required to swallow near-complete practical defeat. Trimble’s greatness manifested itself in the realisation that while aspects of this grand bargain were unpalatable, the larger part of it was more than worth swallowing.
Northern Ireland is a place of double-minority and double-majority. Each community considered itself victim and underdog; each reckoned itself besieged. And within their own frames of reference, both were correct. Nationalists and Republicans were a minority within the six counties of Northern Ireland; Unionists a minority on the island of Ireland.
As Trimble put it in his (excellent) Nobel peace prize lecture:
“Each [community] thought it had good reason to fear the other. As Namier says, the irrational is not necessarily unreasonable. Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for catholics. And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down. None of us is entirely innocent.”
Peace, even a qualified peace, was only possible once this truth was grasped. Only then could Northern Ireland’s tribes understand - and accept - they had at this fundamental level, more in common than anything which divided them. Their political preferences might differ; their psychological positioning was broadly similar. Peace is built on empathy.
Unionists, however, struggled to comprehend the scale of their victory. For the first time, the Republican movement was required to concede there could be no alteration to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position until such time as the majority of its people consented to that change. A century of Republican orthodoxy was jettisoned and this was, within its own context, no small revolution but, rather, the complete refutation of Sinn Fein’s worldview.
For Unionism, though, this manifested itself as something simpler: the IRA agreed to stop doing the things it should never have been doing in the first place. It is all very well to say “Just take the win” but when the victory is, as you see it, the end of a battle which should never have been fought - or at least, never fought like that - in the first place, the value of that win is easily discounted.
In return for intellectual capitulation, Sinn Fein and the IRA were rewarded with meaningful practical victories. Prisoners would be released, no matter how horrific their crimes would be. Decommissioning would be accepted in theory but endlessly delayed in reality. The RUC - defenders of the peace, as Unionists saw it - would be disbanded. Former terrorists, not all of them by any means repentant in any true sense, would be granted the status of “normal” politicians. If forgiveness was demanded of all, Unionists naturally felt they were required to do the greater part of the forgiving.
In return, of course, Nationalists and Republicans were required to accept a constitutional status quo not necessarily of their choosing but because this was, for Unionists, an acceptance of reality, it was an acceptance easily under-appreciated and under-priced.
The unbalanced nature of the process, however, also meant that while some parties were held to their commitments others were given greater leeway and freedom to ignore the letter of their own promises. If it was, on one level, self-evidently true that peace required the participation of the warmongers once the process was underway that easily slid into thinking that keeping Sinn Fein and the IRA on board was important almost to the extent of excluding all other considerations. For, after all, moderate Nationalists and (to a lesser extent) moderate Unionists had nowhere else to go. They would have to swallow it, no matter how unpalatable they might find this.
There was a logic to this and it doubtless helped prevent Republican backsliding but it also had the unavoidable consequence of making Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness the most important men in the room. Parity of esteem, for sure, but some people got more parity than others.
One consequence of that soon became clear: Sinn Fein replaced the SDLP as the “authentic” representatives of Northern Irish Irishness and the DUP supplanted the UUP as the “authentic” representatives of Northern Irish Britishness. Far from breaking down community affiliations, the nature of the peace process exacerbated them. There was peace but not much trust.
That hollowing-out of the more-or-less moderate centre was deemed an acceptable piece of collateral damage. David Trimble could see this happening and if he despaired about it, he nonetheless accepted it - however unwillingly - as part of the price of peace. And it is here, perhaps, that his greatness was revealed. Few politicians are prepared to accept that kind of sacrifice in pursuit of a greater, if significantly imperfect, goal.
Was this inevitable? I think not. I think London (and Dublin) could have held the line against Sinn Fein and the IRA with greater rigour than they did. Other parties were required to honour their promises and, albeit at some risk, it would have been reasonable to demand the same from Adams & Co.
Some of this still rumbles on. Earlier this week Michelle O’Neill, the former deputy first minister, looked back at the province’s history and claimed there was “no alternative” to the IRA’s war. This is not, in fact, the case. It is sometimes too easily forgotten that the majority of Northern Irish catholics did not support the IRA’s murderous campaign. Thirty years of war and to what end? A recognition of a constitutional reality which was obvious at Sunningdale. Northern Ireland was a place for “slow learners” right enough but none were nearly so slow as Sinn Fein and their warrior comrades.
Once again, it is sometimes forgotten that the SDLP played a greater part in making a peace process possible than Sinn Fein and John Hume and Seamus Mallon were better men than Adams and McGuinness. Since the SDLP was a victim of the peace process too, its eclipse burnishes Hume and Mallon’s posthumous reputations much as the UUP’s demise polishes Trimble’s.
All gone now, of course. Only Adams, the most duplicitous and sleekit of them all, remains. Most of the peace processes other fathers - and some of the mothers - are gone now. Their deaths require salutation but even as the substance of the peace process - however faulty and uneven and imperfect it may be - is saluted and rightly cherished, there remains the haunting, melancholy, suspicion it could have been better still. The sense of what might have been, hardly unusual in Northern Ireland, is a still-haunting air caught on the breeze from time to time.
Still, and looking to one possible-though-still-unlikely future, the Good Friday Agreement’s elegance is often under-appreciated. It is a document - and more than that, a worldview - designed to last. It is flexible yet also unyielding, permitting a range of scenarios in which Northern Ireland may change even as the Agreement does not. For it is large enough to encompass almost any palatable constitutional development. As such, it is a work of considerable political imagination.
Suppose, merely for the sake of argument, there is one day a referendum on Irish unity. Suppose, too, that the people of Northern Ireland opt for that unity. (This outcome may be inferred from the fact the Secretary of State may only authorise a plebiscite if he, or she, thinks it likely to produce a change in constitutional circumstance.) Well, in such an event everything would change even as, at one level, remarkably little might do so. A new world would be born looking, in its day to day appearance, significantly like the old one.
For, thanks to Northern Ireland’s unique constitutional architecture, the most likely outcome of unification would surely be that London and Dublin swap places. East-West would be the new North-South and London would be as invested in Northern Ireland as Dublin is. Stormont would remain, not least as a guarantee that Unionist sensitivities would be both respected and protected, and with it the power-sharing arrangements put in place by the Belfast Agreement. No other settlement seems plausible or even - from Dublin’s perspective - desirable.
Northern Ireland would continue to be a hybrid place. Stroke Country, to borrow from the late Gerry Anderson’s description of Derry/Londonderry as “Stroke City”. It would remain British even as it was newly Irish. For if history demands compromise, the bargain is made with the facts on the ground, not ideologues’ dreams.
The Irish peace process recognises this and that is its great triumph. The (largely complete) silencing of the guns is only, in fact, the half of it. Northern Ireland can never be wholly Irish or wholly British for it is, instead, radically both and it is only be recognising, accepting, welcoming this that Northern Ireland can be true to the reality of its own self. David Trimble, a Briton and an Irishman, understood this, I think.
The last word should go to Trimble himself:
Some critics complain that I lack “the vision thing”. But vision in its pure meaning is clear sight. That does not mean I have no dreams. I do. But I try to have them at night. By day I am satisfied if I can see the furthest limit of what is possible.
There is a lesson there which might usefully be absorbed far beyond the green, green hills of Ulster.
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There are other once-dignified campaigning and charitable organisations who have thoroughly besmirched their reputations in recent years (no need to name them, many of you will know who they are) but something truly rotten has happened to Amnesty International.
This is the kind of reductive “both sides” nonsense which makes chumps of those who insist upon it. Amnesty is, of course, entitled to proffer this kind of Corbynite twaddle but it is also reasonable to judge a once-mighty, once-vital, organisation for it. Amnesty’s decline has been a pitiful thing to watch.
In this instance, one wonders how Ukraine is expected to defend its towns and cities without soldiers or munitions based in, or near, those towns and cities? This is not a game, you know. Amnesty’s criticism is no different from Corbyn’s suggestion that no good can come from helping the Ukrainians defend themselves. That too is, in effect, a means of saying “I want Russia to win”.
And while it is true that Russia would and will target civilian populations anyway, Amnesty has handed the Kremlin precisely the kind of too-cute-by-far excuse for doing so the Russians both love and will use: “We are not targeting civilians; we are targeting Ukrainian forces whose positioning has, by their own volition, endangered civilians. #SadFaceEmoji”.
But this is the problem with setting yourself up as a kind of fastidious referee in the middle of a war: a fatal loss of moral clarity.
Department of Promises
Since China cannot be avoided - no matter how much more comfortable that might make life - it is best to be realistic about what China really is. There are no easy answers or solutions here but that is no excuse for pretending there are no questions or choices to be made.
“Starmer has done in two years what took Neil Kinnock eight: he has made the Labour party electorally competitive again. Now Starmer needs to stick to his guns on strikes. To be an alternative government in waiting you must show you will govern for the nation, not the faction.” John McTernan is always worth reading and he makes a convincing case for why Keir Starmer is wise to avoid picking sides in industrial disputes. [Guardian]
“People are exquisitely careful with them. Utterly decorous and graceful. They are so valuable, and there are so few of them left. It is as if we are in a room with Henry’s longbowmen, or Nelson’s sailors. Our scope for reverence, usually so limited, is much larger here. There are many quiet grandsons, and great-grandsons, wheeling around their relatives.” Will Lloyd takes to the air with the very last of the WW2 flyboys. A lovely, touching, piece. [Unherd]
Can bacteria eat plastic? For all kinds of reasons, let’s hope so. Tom Whipple investigates. [The Times]
I’m in Norway this week, so it seems appropriate to leave you with Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor.
That’s all for today, folks. As always I’m grateful to you for subscribing and doubly grateful to those of you who share this with other people and trebly - no, quadruply - grateful to those of you who have upgraded to a paid subscription. For better or worse, this is my occupation so every little bit helps. Thanks again.
The Debatable Land is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.