Trimble commemorates the Battle of the Somme on first day as ex-minister

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The Independent Online

David Trimble spent his first day as the ex-First Minister of Northern Ireland on the battlefields of the Somme, which comes second only to the Boyne as a high shrine to Ulster sacrifices and long memories.

The venue was a political gift to Mr Trimble, but quite coincidental. It was 85 years ago yesterday that the Ulster Volunteers were cut to ribbons on the first day of the Battle of the Somme ­ finally losing 5,553 men in 48 hours.

Although many other British and Commonwealth regiments had similar sickening losses, the sacrifices of Protestant Ulster on the Somme has always been seen by Unionists as a down payment in blood for an everlasting recognition of their "Britishness''.

To be fair to Mr Trimble, the temptation to go over the top on the Somme must have been great. But he refused it. He made a dignified, short statement, standing before the Thiepval monument to the "Missing of the Somme'', in which he said he had resigned to ensure that the Northern Ireland peace agreement was "fully implemented", not to destroy it.

He said he was disappointed to leave his post and did not rule out returning as First Minister ­ but only if the IRA agreed to start putting its weaponry "permanently beyond use".

He refused to take questions comparing his action ­ or contemporary Northern Irish politics ­ to the Battle of the Somme, from July to November 1916, in which 16,000 soldiers from the British and Commonwealth armies died in the first 24 hours.

It was left to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, who was also present at the Somme commemorations, to make the connection. "I don't think that there is any place on Earth which exceeds the symbolism of the Somme to show the futility and tragedy of taking the road of violence rather than the road of negotiation and dialogue," Mr Reid said.

Mr Trimble attended the annual ceremony to mark the battle at the Thiepval monument (a ceremony that was given a somewhat different tone this year by the presence of the author Sebastian Faulks, who read First World War poems by Wilfred Owen and Ivor Gurney).

Later, Mr Trimble attended ­ with many other visitors from Ireland, including scores of Orange Lodge members wearing their orange sashes ­ a separate ceremony at the Ulster Tower on part of the battlefield where the Ulster Volunteers fought and died.

Between the two ceremonies, Mr Trimble and Mr Reid chatted briefly with four young British men dressed up as Scottish soldiers of the First World War.

"Are these weapons beyond use?" Mr Reid asked the bemused visitors, pointing to their period rifles.

They explained that the guns had had their firing mechanisms removed. "Ah, yes," said Mr Trimble, laughing heartily. "But are they permanently beyond use? That is the question.''