A rational man among Ulster's stereotypes

Trimble by Henry McDonald (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

Spitting Image used to do a bellowing Ian Paisley, it being respectably racist to hate Northern Ireland Protestants. In the past five years, however, David Trimble, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, has mitigated global perceptions of his tribe. Henry McDonald, a British newspaper's Ireland correspondent, charts David Trimble's career admiringly but not uncritically in this first, unofficial biography of the politician who made the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday 1998. For that historic compromise, he was jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize.

Based on more than 100 interviews, the book is a fascinating read about an enigmatic figure who confounds his opponents and amazes his political friends. There are some slips, but McDonald offers a good second draft of contemporary history. Lazy journalism likes extremists who becomes moderates - and Trimble's reputation has been peppered by clips of his Drumcree dance with Paisley in 1995 and his angry confrontation with the RUC in 1996. He reveals his "rather inglorious thoughts" - he was trying to stop Paisley claiming a victory in his constituency.

McDonald, however, produces considerable evidence of continuity: the old Catholic friend who recalls that "David was religion-blind"; the Belfast law students who describe him as scrupulously fair; his idea of coalition with constitutional nationalists in 1975; his early perception of republicans who gave up violence for democracy; his membership of an ecumenical presbyterian church and his private comment to the Catholic writer Ruth Dudley Edwards after becoming UUP leader: "Don't worry - all will become clear soon."

He shows Trimble - from a lower middle-class background with deep Ulster roots - to be shy but extremely able (his treatment by Queen's University, where he worked until he became an MP in 1990, was unworthy, though he does not complain). He married a former student in 1978 (a second marriage) and they have four children. Maturity has revealed civilised tastes: opera, wine, books, and mountains (looking, not touching).

McDonald reports a great deal of laughter (contrary to stereotypes), and a work-rate unknown in Ulster. But there is also Trimble's short temper (people describe him turning red), and his mechanism for coping with stress - humming. There is also a paradox of continuing loyalty to those who desert him and an inability to thank political friends. Unloved by tribal Catholics, hated by half the majority community, Trimble appears to enjoy operating at the level of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and even Bertie Ahern - "the top of the temple".

McDonald stresses the refugees from Catholic nationalism who have been attracted to Trimble (without becoming Unionists). This is a sign of independence, if not recklessness - these are exotic creatures for the plain people of Ulster. The leadership of rational Unionism must be lonely, which is why Trimble, while indefatigable, fantasises about leaving it.

If there had been no Belfast Agreement, Trimble would be remembered for his back-room role in bringing down the power-sharing executive in 1974. John Hume seemingly cannot forget. The (now suspended) first minister distinguishes the two settlements: in 1974, there was to be a council of Ireland, while practical North-South cooperation was agreed. Then the Irish territorial claim was negotiated away in 1998; there is also the British-Irish Council.

But Sinn Fein was one of the four parties in the involuntary coalition to which power was devolved on 2 December 1999; and it was the IRA's failure to decommission arms which led Peter Mandelson to restore direct rule on 12 February. Here David Trimble admits a strange failing for a lawyer: inadequate attention to rule-of-law issues and to prisoners, which the two governments dumped belatedly into the multi-party negotiations.

McDonald also links Trimble with Protestant paramilitaries, mainly but not exclusively in 1974. This has been denied vigorously, and the author accepts that his subject has always been anti-violence.

David Trimble's place in history is secure. But he has failed to bring republicans entirely over the bridge from terrorism to democracy. It remains to be seen whether the two states, in advancing their own interests, help or hinder the true prophet of peace in Ireland.

The reviewer, a barrister, has written a legal guide to the Belfast Agreement

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