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David Trimble did all he could, and Ireland is the better for it




David Trimble: Photo: PA

David Trimble: Photo: PA

David Trimble: Photo: PA

Doing the right – but unpopular – thing can find a person stoned from the rubble of the pedestal on which they once stood.

Such was the fate of David Trimble. However, the tireless work he did in leading unionists to accept the Good Friday Agreement will ultimately serve as a more enduring monument.

Perceptions of him as an impregnable hardliner when he took over the Official Unionist Party in 1995 – replacing the granite-like irredentist James Molyneaux – were strengthened after he locked hands with DUP leader Ian Paisley in a triumphant march down the nationalist Garvaghy Road at the height of the bitter Drumcree stand-off of the same year.

But some grow smaller under the weight of leadership, and some grow with it. David Trimble was among the latter. From the off, he told his party the political times were changing. They must either change or be left behind.

A shy, sometimes tetchy nature made him appear stand-offish and unapproachable, but if his personal glad-handing skills were not best suited for the world of politics, his instincts certainly were.

He never claimed to be an architect of the historic agreement that ended the Troubles, yet without his fine-tuning and dogged determination to get the best deal he could for unionism, that milestone would not have been reached in 1998.

Not a man to compromise, he always held out until he was confident concession was the lesser of two evils. His choices were in the end vindicated by the decades of peace that followed.

However, they cost him dearly. Key members of his party – including Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster – would join the DUP.

Trimble’s eventual agreement to work with Sinn Féin before decommisioning – a red line among unionists and loyalists – was a step too far for many. The DUP ultimately prospered as opposition to concessions for republicans hardened.

Trimble’s sharing of the Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume in 1998 gave global recognition to his efforts.

However, on the more unforgiving streets of Belfast, sections of unionism saw such pragmatism as a sell-out. In accepting the prize, he said the shadow of the past in Northern Ireland must not darken its future.

From there on he channelled his energies toward making it possible for new generations to walk from under it.

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He brought time, courage and commitment to work for just such an end, with little thanks for his efforts. He made progress by focusing only on what he termed “the realms of the possible”.

His hope was to “leave the dark sludge of sectarianism behind us”. Let no one pretend there is not more work to be done in this regard.

For one man, he surely did all he possibly could. Although steeped in unionist tradition, he was not blinded by it. He stood up to both nationalists and unionists alike when he saw fit.

Most important of all, he left Northern Ireland a better place than he found it.

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