This weekend he is negotiating the minefield of Northern Ireland politics. His mission is to secure a constitutional settlement that gives the nationalist minority a power-sharing role, but only within the context of a copper- bottomed agreement fastening the province within the United Kingdom. Since he and his party have planted most of the mines, figuratively speaking at least, it is easier for him to find the path than others. Yet the dangers of failure are just as fraught for Trimble as they are for John Hume's SDLP and Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein. His community is bound to bear the brunt of the violence if the peace process collapses.
The extraordinary thing is that he is there at all. He is not a member of the Anglo-Irish squirearchy that controlled unionism for generations, or a successor to the entrepreneurial politicians who believed they could do a deal with the Heath government to contain the rising tide of nationalism. He comes to politics through a more ideological route, backed by a burning sense of Britishness that rejoices in the sight of Catholic families in the Falls Road watching Coronation Street.
Trimble is a calculating man. He knows when and how loudly to bang the unionist drum - he even lives in Lambeg, the home of the drum - but he has also played New Labour like a well-tuned fiddle, judging accurately Tony Blair's willingness to carry on where John Major left off, and even to move further in his direction. He has shown himself a modernist, embracing one member, one vote for his own party and proportional representation for the proposed Northern Ireland Assembly. He has tabled proposals for a new beginning for Ulster based on "a measure of principled compromise". He has told his people that nerves of steel will be required in the final four days of negotiation leading up to Thursday's deadline for an agreement to be put to referendums north and south of the border, and he leaves them in no doubt as to his own estimate of their leader's metallurgical qualities.
He is not alone in macho posturing. Bertie Ahern, the Irish premier, has singled out the unionist leader as the man to beat. After his second round of talks in Downing Street, he insisted: "David Trimble would need to understand that my compromises have been completed." It was now time for the old enemy to make concessions. Yet by publicly demanding that Trimble gives more ground, Ahern made it more difficult to do so in the privacy of the negotiations without attracting accusations of "sell-out" from the forces of intransigence to his right.
David Trimble's origins were not politically promising. The family originally migrated from Northumberland some 300 years ago: the name is a debasement of Turnbull. The Hume family followed from just over the border in Scotland more than a hundred years later, but found itself on the other side of the religious divide. David was born in 1944, in Bangor, a seaside resort in County Down, which has been likened to the kind of place that Margaret Thatcher had in mind when she said that Ulster was as British as Finchley. His father was a junior civil servant, and his mother from a family whose building business had failed. He attended the local grammar school and went on to Queen's University in Belfast to read law. This was the exciting period of student unrest and the birth of the civil rights movement. At Queen's, the leftist People's Democracy movement emerged to challenge Unionist hegemony in a province steeped in gerrymandering and the one- party Stormont "statelet".
He cannot have failed to notice the quasi-revolution going on around him, but the student Trimble kept his head in his books and graduated with first-class honours in 1968, the year the balloon went up in Londonderry. Still he kept his counsel, becoming a lecturer at Queen's and quietly moving up the academic ladder of the law department. But in his late twenties, Trimble began to develop a taste for the wilder shores of unionism. When veteran hard-hat William Craig founded the Ulster Vanguard movement in 1972, he found a ready recruit in the boy from Bangor. Craig was openly advocating violence, arguing at one of his monster Oswald Mosley-style rallies "one of these days, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy".
Trimble did not publicly associate himself with these views, though he did later support "mobilisation and citizens' army calls", adding: "I would personally draw the line at violence and terrorism. But if we are talking about a campaign that involves demonstrations and so on, then a certain amount of violence may be inescapable." Forensic equivocation apart, Trimble was active in Vanguard - an umbrella group of hardline unionists - when it helped strong-arm the Ulster Workers' Council strike of May 1974, which brought down the last attempt at power-sharing in Northern Ireland. A fellow Vanguardist at the time insists that Trimble played an active role in the 15-day struggle that paralysed Ulster and destroyed the Sunningdale Agreement negotiated by Ted Heath and the moderate unionist regime of Brian Faulkner. The issue then, as now, was north-south executive bodies, seen by militant - and sometimes paranoid - unionism as opening the door to a united Ireland.
But the experience of "direct action" also seems to have given Trimble a stronger taste for orthodox politics. He had been an unsuccessful Vanguard Unionist Party candidate for North Down in the 1973 elections for the power-sharing assembly. He was elected a VUP member of Merlyn Rees's ill-fated Convention in 1975-76, and finally joined the official Ulster Unionist Party in 1977. Trimble also married, for the second time, in 1978, to Daphne, one of his law students. The couple have four children, two boys and two girls. It is a close-knit family, but under the constant constraints of Ulster politics. He relaxes by listening to opera and Elvis Presley.
Ulster's own "King" had not quite finished with fringe politics, however. He chaired the Lisburn Ulster Club, one of many formed to end Thatcher's Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. He clambered up unionism's greasy pole for more than a decade before landing the ultra-safe Westminster seat of Upper Bann at a by-election in 1990. His constituency contains what might be termed the Orange capital of Ulster, Portadown, scene of the annual stand-off on the road to Drumcree Church between Orangemen and the nationalist community of Garvahy Road. In the summer of 1995, sash- proud Trimble stood at the head of thousands of irate Orange demonstrators who defied an RUC order not to march their traditional route.
His brush with authority paid off. When Jim Molyneaux quit the leadership of the Unionist Party soon afterwards, Trimble, the Westminster arriviste and flirter with the men of violence, was not the front-runner. The smart money was on John Taylor, veteran MP and unofficial heir. But at Drumcree, Trimble had touched the sacred hem of unionism in a way that brought out all the old atavism of the party faithful. He was elected leader, and immediately plunged into the talks process as though all his previous life had been an apprenticeship. On 1 May last, he brought the UUP numbers in Parliament up to 10, with a 33 per cent share of the popular vote.
Therein lies Trimble's own twin-track strategy. Naturally, he wants to secure a deal that fixes his community's majority ruling position for the foreseeable future. But he also wants to re-establish a single unionist party for Ulster, with himself in charge, which would bequeath a legacy of majority support across the divide for the union with Britain. It is not a vision that shouts its name, though he can point to falling support among Catholics for a united Ireland. In some quarters he is likened to the "de Klerk of Northern Ireland". The analogy does not go down well with him: "Oh, I would much rather be the Mandela. Absolutely. De Klerk was the leader of a minority group that was frustrating the rights of the majority."
Well, yes, but not really. De Klerk is the man who bravely delivered up his fraudulent white majority in the name of democracy. Mandela was the man who suffered to end the gerrymandering that robbed his people of a vote, much as many Catholics were treated before the human rights campaign of the late 1960s and onwards. There is no proper comparison between Mandela and David Trimble. The Unionist Party leader derives from a long line of unapologetic defenders of "what we have, we hold". He is more of a PK Botha than a Mandela. If there is a "deal" that rank-and- file unionists later find unpalatable, a la Sunningdale, he will subvert it. In the words of David Burnside, his public relations chief who some find sinister: "If things go wrong, he will do whatever he has to do." We cannot say we have not been warned.Reuse content