David Trimble (born 1944) was a member of the British parliament and a key figure in the historic Northern Ireland peace agreement of 1998. He was honored for this accomplishment with the Nobel Peace Prize.
David Trimble began his career as a hard-line Protestant Unionist. To the surprise of most involved, he became a key figure in an historic peace agreement in violence-plagued Northern Ireland. After a long career as a law professor, he was elected in 1990 as a member of Britain's parliament. Trimble became leader of the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party in 1995. His tough stance against the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which struggled for the independence of Northern Ireland, aligned him well with the ideals of his party. His election was seen as a blow to the peace process in the region. No one expected that the temperamental member of the Orange Order would take center stage in forging a deal with his longtime enemies, setting aside personal skepticism to reach an agreement that would end three decades of conflict. In April 1998, Trimble was instrumental in hammering out the Good Friday compromise that was approved by a democratic vote on May 22, 1998. It established an independent legislative council for Northern Ireland and bridged a relationship with the Irish Republic, but allowed the region to remain part of Britain. Trimble was elected first minister of Northern Ireland in the new assembly. That December, Trimble and John Hume, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland," according to the official Nobel Prize web site.
Trimble was born William David Trimble on October 15, 1944, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to William and Ivy Trimble, whose roots were English Protestant. He grew up in a comfortable middle-class home and attended Bangor Grammar School, then studied law at Queen's University Belfast (QUB) in the late 1960s. A quiet and serious student, he completed his law degree and took a position at QUB as a lecturer in 1968. Though called to the Bar of Northern Ireland in 1969, he did not practice, preferring to stay on at QUB for much of his career. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1977, and held that post until 1990. He also served as assistant dean of the law school.
Trimble first entered politics in the early 1970s by joining a group called Vanguard. This organization sought to merge a number of splinter factions into one political party. It was created out of the philosophy of Northern Ireland's largest and most important Protestant party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Vanguard's leader, William Craig, became a controversial figure at the time for his statements opposing civil rights and promoting the use of deadly force-particularly against Catholics-in establishing a pro-British semi-independent Irish state. The paramilitary group's massive motorcycle rallies were a trademark, and Trimble is remembered for his support of a 1974 loyalist strike during which Protestants protested a power-sharing agreement. Trimble, however, often did not seem to agree with the group's inflammatory stance. In 1975, Trimble was elected to the Northern Ireland Convention from South Belfast, representing Vanguard. At one point, Craig reversed course and came out in support of a voluntary coalition with a major party, causing a rift in the ranks of Vanguard. Trimble stayed aligned with Craig and was named the party's deputy leader. Eventually, though, he drifted toward the mainstream and joined the UUP in 1978.
Elected to Parliament
Although he spent many more years in academia, Trimble began serving as the UUP's honorary secretary. He was also chairman of the Lagan Valley Unionist Association and chairman of the Ulster Society from 1985 to 1990. These right-wing groups organized protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave the Catholic Irish Republic a consultative voice in Northern Ireland politics. Trimble was then elected to the British Parliament from Upper Bann in a 1990 by-election. He established himself as an active politician, holding frequent meetings with other lawmakers in Ireland, England, and the United States. However, he was not known for his charm or compromising ways. Instead, he was viewed as a outspoken and rather undiplomatic personality, who was prone to rises in temper.
Peace talks ensued between Britain, Protestant and Catholic parties in Ireland, and Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA. Britain announced that, unless a majority wanted to keep the status quo, it was not interested in maintaining Ireland as a part of Great Britain. In 1993, the Downing Street Declaration was signed, which entitled Sinn Fein to participate in deciding the fate of Northern Ireland if the IRA agreed to renounce violence. Specific points came under debate for many months, but the IRA declared a cease-fire, and there seemed to be some progress toward a peaceful future for Ireland.
Led Ulster Unionist Party
In 1995, much to the surprise of observers, Trimble was elected leader of the UUP over the more moderate, John Taylor. Several months prior to the 1995 election, an event occurred which cemented Trimble's reputation as a militant and increased his popularity within the ranks of the UUP. He was instrumental in opposing a police ban that tried to prevent a march of the Orange Order (a coalition of Protestant groups) in a Catholic district in Portadown, Armagh County. This event became known as "the siege of Drumcree." The following year, Trimble again attended the march in his Orange sash and bowler, and again the police were ordered to halt the march, but eventually relented. Trimble was seen on television walking down Garvaghy Road while throngs of Catholic protestors were beaten back by police. To the UUP, Trimble was a solid representative of Protestant loyalties and strength under duress. But to others, Trimble was seen as an extremist. His election was considered a blow to any hope of reaching an agreement.
After a temporary halt, talks with Sinn Fein commenced in Belfast in June 1996. Former U.S. senator, George Mitchell, was dispatched to Ireland to chair the peace talks, despite grumblings that he was pro-Catholic. After another pause, the talks geared up in September, despite the fact that a bombing by a splinter faction of the IRA killed 29 and injured more than 200 in Omagh. Also playing a large part in the talks was John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the moderate Catholic party. He had been heavily involved with the peace talks for many years. Trimble remained firmly in favor of Ireland continuing to be part of Britain, but recognized a duty to sit at the table and discuss peace for the violence-weary region, both for moral and political reasons. For years, he refused to sit in the same room as Sinn Fein representatives. "We could have stayed back and waited for the talks to collapse without us," Trimble remarked, according to Barry Hillenbrand in Time magazine. "But then we would have been accused of blocking peace."
Peace Agreement Reached
As the talks dragged on into 1998, Mitchell became concerned, as violence appeared to be increasing in the region. He worried that one of the leaders in the talks might be assassinated. Therefore, he and British prime minister, Tony Blair, set a deadline of May to either finalize an agreement or give up the effort. The parties set a new deadline of Thursday, April 9, 1998, at midnight (the day before the Christian holiday of Good Friday), although negotiations stretched out for 17 hours past that time. A landmark settlement that was reached on April 10, outlined a compromise. Northern Ireland would have its own assembly, thus governing itself, while remaining a province of Great Britain. A representative number of Catholics and Protestants would serve in this new legislature. In addition, the Republic of Ireland agreed not to claim the area as part of its own territory, although it would provide some guidance with issues such as tourism, transportation, and the environment. With this compromise, Catholics could forge a closer relationship with Ireland, while Protestants would be pleased that the region remained part of Britain. Subsequently, a majority vote from both sides was required for the treaty to become official. On May 22, 1998, the plan was approved by 94 percent of voters in the Irish Republic. In Northern Ireland, the vote was 71 percent approval.
Trimble took a considerable risk, both personally and politically, with his role in the peace talks. A large portion of Ulster Unionists and other Orange Order groups felt that he had betrayed their interests. After the vote, the region experienced some violent uprisings by disgruntled opponents of the plan from both sides. In some parts of his Portadown district, people were so angered that it was not safe for Trimble to visit. Despite these reactions, he was elected first minister of Northern Ireland at the new assembly's first meeting. Perhaps to allay the concerns of Protestants, he announced that the IRA would have to start decommissioning weapons before they would be allowed to participate in the provincial assembly. Sinn Fein was perturbed, countering that the stipulation of disarmament was not part of the original treaty, but Trimble disagreed. He offered to meet directly with Sinn Fein leaders, along with other party leaders, for discussion on moving forward. This was a major step in relations between the groups.
In September 1998, Trimble met and spoke with Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, to discuss the future of the nation and the possibility of sharing power. Trimble labeled the meeting "civilized and workmanlike," according to Marjorie Miller in the Los Angeles Times. It marked the first time since 1922 that Irish Protestant leaders from Northern Ireland had met fact-to-face with Catholic leaders from the Irish Republic. Throughout prior peace talks, Trimble refused to make eye contact with Adams, and the two communicated entirely through intermediaries. Earlier in the week they had spoken to each other directly for the first time with others in the room. However, Trimble refused to shake hands with Adams until the IRA agreed to disarmament. Adams reportedly told Trimble that Sinn Fein has distanced itself from the IRA and is not even able to give such orders.
For their roles in the peace talks, Trimble and Hume were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a December 1998 ceremony. The winners split the cash, worth roughly $950,000. Adams was noticeably left out; but expressed support for the winners. Some commentators, and Trimble himself, worried that the honor was premature. Violence had persisted in the region and the IRA steadfastly refused to give up its weapons. If Trimble adopted a hard-line approach, the fragile arrangement could be threatened. On the other hand, a conciliatory attitude would surely serve to further divide his party. After the Nobel Prize winners were announced in the fall of 1998, Trimble, noted to the BBC, "We know that while we have got the makings of a peace, it is not wholly secure yet."
Though Trimble holds an extremely public place in world affairs, he is an intensely private man. He was married once and divorced. In 1978, he married Daphne Orr, one of his former law students. They have two sons and two daughters. Trimble enjoys reading and listening to opera; his favorites include Verdi, Strauss, and Wagner.
Further Reading on David Trimble
Modern Irish Lives, edited by Louis McRedmond, St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Arizona Republic, October 17, 1998.
Business Week, June 29, 1998.
Daily Telegraph, October 17, 1998.
Economist, November 4, 1995; January 6, 1996; July 4, 1998;September 5, 1998.
Independent, January 27, 1996; November 7, 1996; December 24, 1996; July 22, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1998; October 17, 1998.
Newsday, October 17, 1998.
New Statesman, November 1, 1996; July 25, 1997; August 28, 1998.
New Statesman & Society, September 15, 1995.
New York Times, September 11, 1998.
Reuters, October 1, 1998
Sunday Telegraph, January 18, 1998.
Time, September 29, 1997.
Time International, June 1, 1998; October 26, 1998.
"Nobel Peace Prize 1998," Nobel Prize Internet Archive web site, http://www.nobel.se (December 8, 1998).
"Mr. David Trimble," Ulster Unionist Party web site, http://www.uup.org (December 8, 1998).