Transforming Unionism: David Trimble And The 2005 General Election, by Michael Kerr

The rise and fall of 'the most contradictory man I ever met'
Click to follow

This is a briskly written, honest and valuable book centred on the enigmatic figure of David Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist (UUP) leader described by the author as "the most contradictory man I ever met". Kerr is not alone, since a great many remain perplexed by a figure who for a decade was at the centre of Northern Ireland politics. The saying of Enoch Powell, Trimble's one-time party colleague, that all political careers end in failure could hardly be better illustrated than by Trimble's fate.

Until the 2005 general election, he was the Nobel laureate who headed Northern Ireland's most important party. But the poll brought disaster. Trimble lost his Westminster seat and his party suffered meltdown. Now it has only one Commons seat, while Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party has nine MPs. This book sheds much light on exactly how this came about.

Michael Kerr worked for the UUP for six years, keeping a diary and interviewing key players. He has affection and respect for Trimble, but what he exposes is a chaotic, amateurish shambles.

"Panic stations at dawn," reads one entry. "DT bursts into the war-room screaming at us." One of his MPs had objected to the campaign slogan, so the posters had to be scraped off the campaign coach. The posters were hastily sand-blasted but all the paint came off too: "War-room is in complete pandemonium."

In one sense this simply confirms what close observers knew: that the UUP lost the election long before it was called. This was partly because of its excruciating lack of organisation, partly because for years it had been shedding votes in the manner of autumn trees shedding leaves.

As Kerr points out, Trimble had the foresight to realise that Unionism needed to modernise as the IRA ran down its campaign. He also had the boldness to take on the formidable task of persuading conservative Protestants to face up to change.

But he lacked some basic political skills, and faced formidable negotiating opponents such as Tony Blair, Gerry Adams and Bertie Ahern. He had no clever Mandelson to spin for him, and was weak in dealing with his party's many dissidents. Most of all, perhaps, he lacked the ability to inspire his followers. Yet it is too early to write his epitaph, for that depends on Ian Paisley. If Paisley should, in time, make a deal, Trimble could argue that he brought to Unionism a new culture of negotiation.