Tough enough to talk

Profile; David Trimble; Irascible Orangeman or nimble negotiator? Geraldine Bedell on the Unionist leader
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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT CLINTON's visit to Northern Ireland allowed the province to celebrate a peace which - awkwardly enough - has yet to be negotiated. Following the IRA's categorical refusal last week to give up its weapons, the street parties are beginning to look embarrassingly premature. So: another week, another stand-off.

In any consideration of the characters who might yet rescue the peace, David Trimble's name would be right at the top of the list. As leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Trimble must decide whether there are any terms on which he can talk to Sinn Fein; he must also decide whether he can afford not to talk. It is an uneviable position, calling for considerable finesse - not something for which Orangemen have hitherto been famed.

It is easy enough to lead the Ulster Unionists when your opponents' idea of diplomacy is having lots of Semtex. It is much less easy when the enemy is threatening to negotiate. As one Ulster Unionist said privately: "I like the peace. I don't like the peace process." Northern Irish politics, devoid of women and most of the middle classes for decades, is tribal, dangerous and crude. But it is also simple - at least until now, when the constituents want and expect peace. Now it calls for delicate, difficult choices.

Whether David Trimble is subtle enough to chart a course towards peace while keeping his supporters from running for shelter to Ian Paisley is a matter of much speculation. When he was elected to his party's leadership in September, Trimble was widely portrayed as a hardliner, a man who had come into politics via Ulster Vanguard, a party which in the early 1970s had all the trappings of neo-fascism. Much was made of his role last summer in leading a parade of Orangemen through a Catholic part of Portadown against the wishes of the RUC, and his later celebration of this victory with Ian Paisley.

He is irascible, his critics say; he harangues people. Maybe so: but there was no sign of it last week in his office at the House of Commons. He seemed affable, reasonable, ready to make a joke. (Asked about the Unionists' current habit of sitting with Sinn Fein on district councils, he said: "The more silent they are, the better it works.") He seemed urbane, considered, a good advertisement for Unionists.

Since his election, Trimble has given every indication of trying to find a way through Ulster politics. He quickly made it his business to talk to John Hume, Dublin and the Clinton administration: "That's atmospherics, but the atmospherics help," he says.

More substantively, he has sought to find a way round the impasse over arms decommissioning. "A month or two ago we were looking at the possibility of deadlock on the weapons issue - and even with the American involvement, we could well be in the same position in February. It seemed very bad to be immobile, people just trading insults about the weapons issue. We felt if those pieces on the board were stuck, perhaps there are other pieces that could move."

Trimble proposed an elected body, not to govern Northern Ireland, but to negotiate constitutional matters, in exchange for which the Unionists might be prepared to waive the arms condition. He was increasingly confident last week that this proposal was being taken seriously by the British and Irish governments. "There are quite a few hints coming out of Whitehall. The body was specifically referred to in last week's communique and John Bruton has appealed to the SDLP to approach the proposal in an open-minded manner."

Trimble's proposal shows a sensitivity to his opponents' difficulties: "Part of the problem Sinn Fein have on the weapons issue is educating their own membership. It may be too difficult to deal with head on, but perhaps possible if other things are moving." It also implies some possible flexibility. "We're looking for something that has some futurity about it. A willingness to abide by the democratic process is also a test, as the arms issue is."

All sorts of objections can of course be raised to this scheme. The history of Northern Irish assemblies is inglorious: Unionists dominate, the other parties walk out. If no progress were made on constitutional questions, the Unionists might try to turn the body into a fully-fledged assembly to run Northern Ireland.

Still, by the end of last week, his idea was looking more promising than any other, and he was being compared (the clever hardliner) to FW de Klerk. It's a comparison he rejects: de Klerk, he says, led an oppressive minority; he is leader of a democratic majority. The Unionists, unlike everyone else, never see Unionism as the minority position. Northern Irish history is, however, littered with Unionist leaders who moved to the centre and opened the way for rightwingers. A general election is at most 18 months away, and Ian Paisley isn't going to stop ranting.

DAVID TRIMBLE came late to politics, showing no interest until he was in his late twenties and entering parliament only five years ago, at the age of 45.

He grew up in North Down, where his father was a junior civil servant ("upper working-class") and his mother came from a family whose building business had failed ("middle-class moving downwards"). Class matters in Irish politics: at the start of the Troubles the Protestant middle class opted out, so as an academic activist, he is something of an anomaly. He joined the civil service, which sent him to Queen's University, where he took a first in law and joined the teaching staff.

In the 1969 elections he canvassed for a friend of a friend, "on a personal, not a political, basis. I wasn't even a member of a political party. But with the prorogation of Stormont in 1972, I thought it really is time I did more about politics than sit saying rude things to the television set." He joined Vanguard, which seemed to be the only party with a coherent approach.

The party's leader, Bill Craig, would arrive at rallies of uniformed men surrounded by paramilitary outriders on motorcycles. Trimble's involvement with Vanguard is one of the chief sources of his reputation as a hardliner, and rightly so: it was an ugly organisation, despite his protests today that "what are called paramilitary organisations now were actually mass organisations banding together, first of all to keep an eye on our neighbourhoods, aware of the prospect of being plunged into civil war in the near future - an entirely different context from the one that exists now".

All the same, there is a postscript to the Vanguard episode which is less often told. Trimble was expelled from the United Ulster Unionist Party (which is what Vanguard, with other groups, became) for supporting Bill Craig's call for a temporary coalition with the SDLP. So they weren't as hardline as all that. And Trimble has had direct experience of how compromise can lead to ostracism.

In 1978, he joined the Ulster Unionist Party. He "scribbled things" until 1985, when the Anglo-Irish Agreement "stirred and pushed me into action" and he founded the Ulster Society. This is "a cultural, rather than political organisation" (though in Northern Ireland the two are often indistinguishable) which publishes "mainly historical" books and pamphlets. It encourages groups as well as individuals to become members, and 500 Orange lodges are affiliated to it. He claims it was this that was decisive in swinging the so-called "Orange vote" and ensuring his election as party leader, not, as people like to believe, the events at Portadown.

The case for the Union has been poorly argued over the years, and David Trimble may be better placed to make it than almost anyone in Ulster - though his contention that what is in it for Britain is a seat on the UN permanent security council seems rather a weak and negative place to begin. ("Only recently has the Foreign Office realised that if it got rid of the embarrassment of Ulster, a new country, Great Britain, would have to apply for the United Kingdom's seat. Do you think it would get it?")

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, becomes an ever more Anglo-Irishplace, with Dublin ever more involved alongside London. Trimble acknowledges this - claims, indeed, that Irish government officials have been involved in discussions about judicial appointments in the North. "I took the matter to the Lord Chancellor, who refused to believe it. But this involvement is taking place several rungs down."

Clear-headed as he is, there is a distinct whiff of paranoia about his attitude to the South. He talks rationally enough about church influence over health and education, but behind the words lie hints of a rather less rational apprehension of papacy as something monstrous. ("There is only one hospital not run by the church in Ireland, and the Government is trying to close it down.") He also seems rather paranoid about the British establishment, elements of which, he claims, spread lies about him, such as that he ignores the children of his first marriage. (There were no children of his first marriage. In 1978 he married his second wife, Daphne, a solicitor; they have four children.)

Trimble is more interesting than the "hardliner" caricatures suggest. Despite having been an Orangeman since the age of 17, and despite his own indebtedness to the Orange vote, he is trying to loosen the party's formal ties with the lodges. He may yet prove nimble enough to move towards peace while seeming so staunchly, incontrovertibly, Unionist that his constituency doesn't defect rightwards.

He certainly won't acknowledge the Paisleyite threat; indeed, he insists on turning the "problem" of an imminent general election on its head. "Put it this way. I think the proximity of the general election means the really serious business will be done in the next Parliament. It seems to me the overriding objective of the present Conservative government is to get to the general election without anything significant happening."