Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

23 March 2000 Edition

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New in print: Trimble - Scratching the surface


By Henry McDonald


£16.99 (hardback)

Trimble has an amazing ability to fall out with absolutely everybody in his party at some point. This may come back to haunt him should there be a leadership challenge at the UUC meeting this Saturday

There is a fine line between being pragmatic and simply being unprincipled in the pursuit of power, a line which Trimble treads with some difficulty
The problem with writing a book about any aspect of political life in the Six Counties is also a great paradox; despite the sense that things change unbearably slowly over the long term, no sooner are the advance copies placed in the hands of reviewers than the immediate situation changes dramatically, making much of the careful research redundant. By the time the volume hits the bookshops, it is already out of date.

Henry McDonald's biography has fallen squarely into this unfortunate trap. He writes that Trimble has undergone a personal transformation from far-right extremist, viewed with suspicion and distaste by the Ulster Unionist Party, to New Unionist über-democrat, dragging his unwilling party away from its 17th century ideology to one more compatible with the 21st, and who is willing to share power with nationalists in an historic political arrangement.

But barely is the ink dry on McDonald's last chapter than his man tears up the Good Friday Agreement and collapses an elected assembly at the behest of a few hundred old men whose religious allegiances still lie with those who see papist plots around every corner. And just to make matters worse, he now faces threats of a possible stalking-horse challenge to his leadership at this Saturday's Ulster Unionist Council meeting. He may well go the same way as his predecessor James Molyneaux and be history before the paperback edition is in the bargain bucket.

McDonald charts the rise of Trimble (which he likens in some respects to that of another ``grey man'', John Major) through his varied political guises, but many of the most interesting questions he raises about him are left hanging in the air, for the simple reason that so much of Trimble's inner life and personal motives are left unexplored. Whilst, for instance, he makes much of Trimble's essentially ``secular'' nature, claiming he is ``religion-blind'' and citing his law tutorship of a republican inmate of Long Kesh and meeting with the Pope as evidence, he does not come up with any plausible explanation for how Trimble reconciles this secularity with his continued membership of the Orange Order.

The obvious conclusion is that membership is a strategic necessity. The Orange Order still wields considerable power, which Trimble must harness to ensure his position. He is, McDonald says, above all a pragmatic man, and much emphasis is placed on this trait throughout the book. Trimble will be, or do, whatever he thinks is necessary to advance his personal ambitions and maintain unionist (if not Protestant) hegemony, whether it be consorting with loyalist paramilitaries, advocating an independent Ulster, championing gun ownership for unionists, switching allegiance from Conservative to New Labour, wooing the American constituency - or even talking to republicans. Any `concessions' made to the nationalist community are made with this in mind - rather like the English queen eventually agreeing to pay tax into the British exchequer. Elizabeth Windsor did not think that, being richest woman in the world, it was right for her to do so; she merely thought it necessary to maintain the monarchy. There is a fine line between being pragmatic and simply being unprincipled in the pursuit of power, a line which Trimble treads with some difficulty, and which led to much of the ill-feeling towards him both from his own and the nationalist communities as he determinedly dug himself into the decommissioning hole.

McDonald is sympathetic to David Trimble (and intractably hostile towards Sinn Féin; whereas the Ulster Unionist Party has a ``well-run information office'' in Washington, Sinn Féin has a ``slick propaganda machine''), but despite his best efforts, there is little to warm to in the character portrayed here. Trimble's propensity for bullying, for example, is something which goes right back to his schooldays and which, in the manner of all bullies, is in marked contrast to his actual physical nervousness - a minor car crash in his youth made him unwilling to drive for years after. Nevertheless, David was a school bully despite being, as McDonald puts it, ``the specky, weedy kid'' to the point where one of his victims managed to get hold of a gun, intending to kill his tormentor. The police, fortunately for young Davy, intervened before any harm came to him. In adulthood, this image was compounded by his antics with Vanguard and the Ulster Clubs and the television footage of him at Drumcree, marching up and down a line of riot police, bellowing orders at them, safe in the knowledge that they were on his side.

McDonald also makes the very interesting assertion that Trimble is ``more comfortable with women'', quoting the well-known feminist Ken Maginnis as the authority on this claim. The opinions of actual women on this question, of whatever political complexion, were not sought (Mo Mowlam's might have been interesting), but one could only conclude that, if this were indeed the case, it is probably because David is comfortable with people he can dominate, and a good Ulsterwoman does as she is told and thinks what she is told to think. And there is still that incident, merely alluded to in the book, of the unnamed woman, the flat and the gun.

He gives away almost nothing in his interviews with the author; even his reason for the infamous Garvaghy Road jig with Ian Paisley is strange and rather unsatisfactory - ``I was thinking, `This is my constituency and I'm not having that fella walking in front of me.' So I grabbed his hand to keep him in his place. The images were a trifle unfortunate, but there we are,'' - and he remains a mystery to the conclusion of the book, despite McDonald's careful chronicling of events (reading the last three chapters felt like ploughing through four years of press cuttings from The Belfast Telegraph). Most interesting, and most inexplicable, is Trimble's apparent infatuation with Sean O'Callaghan, which is discussed in some detail, and his reliance on the advice of Eoghan Harris and Ruth Dudley Edwards (although Dudley Edwards, referred to by McDonald as a ``Dublin liberal'', has claimed since that her influence over Trimble has been exaggerated, as has that of O'Callaghan and Harris).

Despite the fact that the majority of those to whom McDonald spoke come from those of the unionist persuasion, one gets the sense that Trimble, as a leader and as an individual, is respected but not particularly liked by those around him. He is cold and socially awkward, although this is kindly attributed to shyness by McDonald. Views on him tend to focus on his intellectual pursuits and political abilities rather than on personal qualities, something which may have arisen from Trimble's amazing ability to fall out with absolutely everybody in his party at some point. This may come back to haunt him should there be a leadership challenge at the Ulster Unionist Council meeting this Saturday.


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