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'David was a leader, not simply a holder of office': Lord Empey pays tribute to Lord Trimble

'David was a leader, not simply a holder of office': Lord Empey pays tribute to Lord Trimble

© UK Parliament 2022

4 min read

I first encountered David Trimble in early 1970s Northern Ireland. The background was the ramping up of the Provisional IRA's campaign of terror; 1972 was the worst year of the Troubles with 479 deaths.

A law lecturer at Queen’s University, David became active in politics alongside those who were appalled by the violence and the inability of the Northern Ireland government (which was replaced that year) and the Westminster government to counteract the terrorists and restore peace to our streets.

We both became elected Members of the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention in 1975, David representing Belfast South and me Belfast East. His ability with the written word was matched by his articulate advocacy of unionist concerns and gained him a reputation as a rising star in unionist politics.

David was a leader, not simply a holder of office

As we moved into the 1980s, with terrorism still rampant and 13,000 members of the security forces on the streets, it was actions by the Thatcher government and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 – behind the backs of unionist leaders – that galvanised unionist supporters, when Dublin was given what many believed was a key role in the oversight of Northern Ireland’s affairs. It is fair to say that Margaret Thatcher later regretted that Agreement, but it taught David a very important lesson: it was no good unionism relying on London to protect unionist interests, as that could only be done by unionism itself being at the negotiating table.

His big political break came in 1990 when Upper Bann MP Harold McCusker died. David won the nomination to replace him, and he entered the House of Commons in 1990 signalling the start of a 32-year long career in Parliament.

Growing frustration within unionism and the rise of Ian Paisley led to frustration within the Ulster Unionist Party and the departure of Jim Molyneaux MP after 16 years at the helm. David won the leadership of the Party in 1995 and began engaging with government and others at a cracking pace.

In 1996, John Major and then Tony Blair established a formal elected mechanism chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell to hold serious talks in a final bid to bring an end to the troubles and re-establish political stability.

From the beginning of the ‘Mitchell process’, David was under attack – both from within his party but especially from without. It was relentless. As the months passed, he began to see an outline of what may be achievable: the twin objectives of seeing an end to the constant violence and securing Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.

As the process neared its end, in April 1998, a crucial meeting took place in the early morning of Good Friday. After a turbulent weekend of negotiating, George Mitchell sent a message to party leaders telling them he needed to know whether they were going to sign up to the Agreement or not.

After 24 hours of frenetic meetings, David entered the room in the Talks HQ where over 40 party activists had been waiting. The atmosphere was tense. David stood up on a chair and related that he had had the message from Mitchell and that it was his intention to go up the stairs and accept the final draft and that those who felt likewise were welcome to join him.

This was an act of real selfless leadership. No other current or recent unionist leader has equalled David’s achievements. He delivered on the constitution and heralded a huge reduction in violence.

David was a leader, not simply a holder of office. He paid a big political price for his decisions, but all his critics are now forced to work within parameters that he established 24 years ago. He always thought strategically, while most current unionist leaders drive their supporters into ambush after ambush.

Parliament and Northern Ireland are poorer places today without his wise counsel.

Lord Empey was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) from 2005 to 2010 and chairman of the UUP from 2012 to 2019.

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