David McKittrick: Good Friday began downfall of first Unionist leader to lift siege mentality

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The Independent Online

David Trimble, who suffered a crushing defeat personally and in terms of his Ulster Unionist party, will be remembered as the figure who attempted to persuade Protestant Ulster to negotiate.

David Trimble, who suffered a crushing defeat personally and in terms of his Ulster Unionist party, will be remembered as the figure who attempted to persuade Protestant Ulster to negotiate.

Almost all of his predecessors as UUP leaders had steadfastly refused to do serious business with Irish nationalists, being particularly opposed to treating with republicanism.

But Mr Trimble, despite many personal hesitations and reservations, believed that the Unionist community's link with Britain would best be preserved by modernising and transforming its approach. In doing so he set off along an unfamiliar path which saw him locked for years in negotiations not just with the British and Irish governments but also with republicans such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

This dramatic departure from the traditional siege mentality brought him local and international attention, earning him the Nobel Peace prize in 1998. But the plaudits of the outside world were not reflected at home, where he was criticised as Unionists split almost exactly 50-50 on the merits of that year's historic Good Friday Agreement.

The great irony of his career is that he had become party leader three years earlier as the most militant and hardline of the five candidates for the job. Once in office, however, the apparent hardliner became a dealer.

One of his perennial problems was that while he was prepared to take Unionism into new territory he lacked the salesmanship skills necessary to persuade his community to follow him. The 1998 Agreement was the high point of Protestant consent for a new beginning: the years that followed saw a steady drain of support away from it.

Mr Trimble's loyalist critics, especially the Rev Ian Paisley, said he should never have negotiated. Nationalists, by contrast, complained that in his heart he never seemed fully behind the accord. Within his party he was tormented by opponents who were able, because of the UUP's rules, to call crisis meetings whenever they sensed he was most vulnerable. This led to a dozen large-scale meetings where party divisions, over the Agreement and his leadership, were repeatedly thrashed out and publicly aired. He prevailed at all, but only by narrow margins.

In the meantime he was several times installed as First Minister of a powersharing government. But several times he pulled out, saying the IRA should be decommissioning its arms and winding up its activities. As a result devolved government provided no new sense of stability, while the standard Protestant complaint was that republicans were able to extract "a concession a day" from Mr Trimble.

London, Dublin, Mr Trimble and republicans nonetheless persisted with the peace process, though Unionists were unwilling to voice appreciation of its benefits, in particular the reduction in violence. In the meantime Mr Paisley carefully slipstreamed behind the pioneering approach, gradually gaining on the Ulster Unionists electorally.

Support for the UUP was crumbling even before yesterday's results showed it had collapsed to the extent that the new parliament will have one UUP MP and nine from the DUP.

The rejection of Mr Trimble has been on an almost cruel scale. He will hope that, if a Paisley-Adams deal should ever come about, his stance that negotiation was necessary for Unionism will eventually be vindicated.

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