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Jonathan Caine: The Price of Peace

Thepriceofpeace Jonathan Caine, a former adviser on Northern Ireland to the Conservative Party in both government and opposition and now a Director at Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, reviews David Trimble: the Price of Peace by Frank Millar.

For many years, when asked by politicians I have advised on Northern Ireland, ‘what should I read?’ top of the list would have been Peter Utley’s 1975 classic Lessons of Ulster.  Since 2004 I have had no hesitation in placing alongside it David Trimble: The Price of Peace by the award winning London Editor of The Irish Times, Frank Millar. It is quite outstanding – a must for anybody interested in the politics of that wonderful but much misunderstood part of our country.

When the book first appeared the DUP had already become the majority unionist party at the previous year’s Assembly elections but the 2005 General Election rout which ended Trimble’s leadership of the UUP had yet to take place.  Now, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Belfast Agreement – and by coincidence the departure of Ian Paisley from frontline politics – Millar has brought out a second, revised edition with a new introduction and an additional conclusion to bring the story up to date.

Here I should declare two interests.  First, Millar is a longstanding friend from whose wisdom I have benefited enormously over the years.  I was honoured in 2004 when he asked me to be one of the five people to read and comment on the original typescript.  It was so gripping I could hardly put it down.  Re-reading it last week was a similar experience.

Second, as a convinced unionist – who still believes post-devolution that unionism is part of the Conservative Party’s DNA – I came strongly to identify with the inclusive, outward looking unionism of David, now Lord, Trimble.  Advising successive shadow secretaries of state after 1998, I believed that the best service the Conservative Party could provide the ‘peace process’ was to back the UUP leader in his negotiations with the Blair Government and the republican movement.  So I came to the book sympathetic to the subject, and sharing much of the author’s own analysis of events.

David Trimble: The Price of Peace is not a conventional biography. Rather it is a series of extended conversations with Trimble himself, covering the main events from the early 1990s when he was regarded as ‘the angry face of unionism’ and a hardliner, to the final, failed negotiation with Gerry Adams in the autumn 2003.  While it gives Trimble his voice, and enables him to give his version of events, it is not uncritical.   

The author leaves the reader in no doubt that Trimble made mistakes: the opacity of requirement for decommissioning in the Belfast Agreement; the failure to hold on to the title and symbols of the RUC; and the farce of ‘re-designation’ in 2001 when the rules, and some might say the democratic process, were turned on their head in order to muster sufficient votes to restore Trimble as first minister.  Millar also challenges Trimble over his handling of relationships with his principal internal critics, particularly Jeffrey Donaldson who was to defect to the DUP in 2004.

Against that, however, Millar makes clear that the ‘big picture’ successes for Trimble far outweighed the individual negotiating failures.  Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom is firmly based on the consent principle.  The Irish territorial claim to sovereignty has been amended, allowing relations with Dublin to ‘normalise’.  While serious problems persist with sectarianism and the enduring grip of paramilitaries within their respective communities, the large-scale terrorism that scarred Northern Ireland from 1969-1998 is mercifully a thing of the past.  David Trimble was not solely responsible for these developments, but he played a huge part in bringing them about.

This book works brilliantly above all for two reasons.  First, there are the forensic insights offered by Millar himself and the quality of his interrogation of Trimble.  Few, if any, have a better understanding of Ulster Unionist politics.  Second, there is the candour with which Trimble responds.  We learn, for example, that his ultimately unsuccessful decision to negotiate directly with Adams in 2003 was driven by ‘hubris’.  He thought he could succeed where Blair had failed.  For those Conservatives who accused him of being too close to Blair, he gives a realistic picture of the weakened state of unionism in 1997.  Faced with a pan-nationalist front in Ireland that stretched to the White House, and a Labour Prime Minister with the votes in Parliament to do largely as he liked, Trimble felt he had to engage to secure the Union.

In his new conclusion, Millar praises Ian Paisley for finally doing the deal with Sinn Fein last year that led to the restoration of devolution.  He deserves particular credit for making support for policing a pre-condition for entering the executive.  Mr Paisley has of course always revelled in portraying himself as ‘the big man’ of Ulster politics.  Yet as this book more than demonstrates, David Trimble is equally ‘a big man’.  Without his courage, Mr Paisley would never have completed the journey.  As one senior DUP negotiator is quoted as saying, ‘I accept that Trimble has made it easier for us’.

Read this book and your knowledge of Northern Ireland politics will be significantly enhanced – as will your assessment of the stature of David Trimble.


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