Himself Alone: David Trimble and the ordeal of Unionism by Dean Godson

The loneliness of a long-distance loyalist
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The Independent Culture

Progressive people believe in peace processes. If they read this well-written, scholarly political biography of Northern Ireland's First Minister under the Belfast agreement they might revise that value.

Progressive people believe in peace processes. If they read this well-written, scholarly political biography of Northern Ireland's First Minister under the Belfast agreement they might revise that value.

The US journalist Dean Godson ignored the advice of Alan Clark and immersed himself in Ulster affairs. David Trimble will be known internationally as co-recipient of the Nobel peace prize in 1998, and is already the subject of a pioneering biography by Henry McDonald. His historical reputation will be debated, undoubtedly, in terms of Godson's gargantuan work.

Himself Alone is a play on the Irish name, "Sinn Fein". Without Trimble, there would have been no agreement. But Godson is also alluding to what he calls Trimble's political autism - his style of party management. The subtitular ordeal is the historical compromise with Irish nationalism, with Godson proclaiming himself (in contradistinction to Trimble) a pan-unionist.

Godson has interviewed almost everyone, including Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, with only a few remaining off the record. Trimble - the Bangor grammar-school boy who became a legal academic - is a product of UK post-war social democracy. Bright but gauche, he has created a stable family life with his second wife, Daphne, and their four children. But he is also a product of the crisis of unionism in 1968-72: a secular conservative identified with Orangeism, and a militant loyalist resistance.

Trimble learned the lessons of the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement as an MP, and surprisingly grabbed the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. This moderniser was to be linked, for good and ill, with Blair. The friends of David, exotic rejects from Catholic nationalism, are quick to discuss his weaknesses. There is anger, rudeness (by English standards) and occasional eccentricity. But these have contributed to his political survival.

Trimble is an intellectual, not just bookish. There is gallows humour (disguising shyness), a mature response to British and Irish officials. And there is a flexibility which saw him nearly nobbled at No 10 in May 1999.

Godson criticises Trimble as poor Anthony Clare material, but one feels the biographer is more interested in high politics. The Belfast agreement is achieved by page 361, and the remainder of this 1,000-page book is a diplomatic study of republican terrorists facing down two democratic governments. "We had a choice", a British mandarin is quoted as saying in 1995, "between good government and peace - and we chose peace". Godson proves this to have been the case, at a length satisfying for political junkies.

The reviewer was involved as a lawyer in the Belfast agreement

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