In the weeks leading up to his death, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton reflected on the legacy of the once hardline unionist who became an architect of peace
David Trimble knew he was gravely ill when he and Bertie Ahern had one final moment together at Queen’s University Belfast last month. The two men, who along with others helped to deliver the Good Friday Agreement, sat opposite each other in a private room deep in conversation.
During the meeting, a frail-looking Trimble informed Ahern that he was sick and would likely deteriorate in the months ahead. They looked into each other’s eyes and welled up — an enduring friendship that emerged as a result of Northern Ireland’s bloody past still as strong at the end.
“It was man-to-man, it was facing up to the realities of life and he felt confident talking to me. He was able to tell me he was in trouble, that it was going the wrong way,” said Ahern.
That very moment and the genuine look they gave each other was captured on camera.
“It was emotional,” the former Taoiseach told the Sunday Independent, “I knew when I was talking it would be the last time I would be able to say something to him.”
Later, when Ahern was leaving the university, he turned to Trimble, reached out his hand and said: “I know it’s going to be a tough time, I wish you well and will be saying my prayers for you.”
It was to be their last conversation together and the end of a friendship that was not hindered by a Border.
In the days before this death, former British prime minister Tony Blair tried to make contact with Trimble. He asked his former chief of staff Jonathan Powell to find out if the former Ulster Unionist Party leader would take a call. But he was too late.
“On the Monday morning I told Jonathan the call is not possible but a letter or a note would be greatly appreciated,” said David Campbell, a friend of Trimble’s and his former chief of staff.
Later that day the 77-year-old father-of-four died at Ulster Hospital. He did not get the months he had hoped for or to go on one last holiday with his wife Daphne as he told Ahern he wanted to.
Instead, Northern Ireland’s original first minister had spent the last few weeks of his life reflecting on his contribution to peace and politics and relations across the island of Ireland.
“We were hoping to meet for lunch in a few weeks, but it was not to be, I wanted a few of us to make a fuss of him,” said Campbell. “I will never forget how he was driven by not wanting his children’s children to ever experience what he and they did during the Troubles.”
The most significant engagement was that last public appearance at Queen’s, where he brought his career in public service to a close in the very place it began and where he said goodbye.
In April the former lecturer in law at the university for 21 years accepted an appointment as honorary professor and agreed to allow the commission of a portrait of him by artist Colin Davidson to be hung permanently in the Great Hall. It now sits alongside one of Senator George Mitchell, another key figure in the peace talks.
There had been previous attempts to convince him to take up an honorary professorship but he turned it down because of his busy schedule.
But this time was different. When he accepted it — as well as an annual lecture in his name — he was moved to tears. He knew that it meant leaving behind a permanent legacy in the place that shaped him.
“It is a great pleasure for me to be here, it is rather emotional for me to be here,” he said, his voice straining, when the plans were announced.
It was part of a seven-month project at the university devised by president and vice chancellor of Queen’s, Professor Ian Greer and its director of engagement Ryan Feeney, who believed Trimble’s longstanding link to the university and his contribution to peace in Northern Ireland needed to be recognised.
When they found out he was unwell, the event was brought forward.
It was clear to those in attendance last month that Trimble was sick. However, there was “a sense of joy, recognition and nostalgia”.
“There was a risk that he might not even live throughout the summer, that he might not see September or October. It made the occasion more poignant,” said David Kerr, Trimble’s former special adviser, whose moving address had most of those in attendance at the event in tears.
“My last moment together with David was me shaking his hand, wishing him safe home. I knew he was ill but did not think it would be the last time I would see him,” he told the Sunday Independent.
During the event, Prof Greer said Trimble’s “strong legacy is the peace enjoyed today by our students, many of whom were born after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”.
In a video message, former US president Bill Clinton said: “Of all the tributes we can pay you, the greatest testament to you is the fact that today an entire generation in Belfast and across Northern Ireland has grown up outside the shadow of hatred and violence.”
Blair said for the generations “who walk through these walls and look upon David’s portrait they will be minded to recall the legacy of a passionate, determined peacemaker”.
It was a path he walked with Ahern, who spoke from the heart and without notes that night.
“You are a brave man,” he said, his eyes locked on Trimble. “You did the right thing but it took a tough man to do it. I honour you, salute you and thank you for your friendship.”
Davidson, a world-renowned artist, believed Trimble “saw what nobody else could see” during those difficult days of the peace negotiations.
He hopes that those viewing his painting at Queen’s now and in the years ahead will look into Trimble’s eyes “to get a glimpse of what he could see” — a poignant reminder as Northern Ireland continues without a power-sharing executive, of that vision and the need to look ahead, not back.