What It Takes is an audio podcast produced by the American Academy of Achievement featuring intimate, revealing conversations with influential leaders in the diverse fields of endeavor: public service, science and exploration, sports, technology, business, arts and humanities, and justice.
I don’t think any politician can really regard themselves as being experienced and fully developed if they haven’t experienced failure. Seeing how other people react to you when you’ve had a failure is quite educative.
William David Trimble was born in Bangor, County Down, in Northern Ireland. His family’s religious tradition was Presbyterian, inherited from their Scots ancestors. Like many others in his community, David Trimble, as he is usually called, grew up thinking of himself as British, regarding Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. Trimble’s father was a civil servant, and a relative served as mayor of the city known as Londonderry to the unionists — supporters of British rule — and as Derry to Irish nationalists.
The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that recognized the independence of the 26 counties that constitute the modern state of Ireland left Britain in control of six northern counties in the historic province of Ulster. Following this partition, the unionists resisted any further effort to weaken ties with Great Britain, or to unify the North with Ireland, as Irish nationalists have favored. Although both sides describe their dispute as an essentially political one, the conflict is often described as sectarian, as the unionists typically come from Protestant families and most nationalists from Catholic ones, with nationalists pointing to the history of discrimination against Catholics under British rule.
Since the mid-1960s, the conflict had escalated and Northern Ireland exploded with violence. Peaceful demonstrations were disrupted; riots, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations followed, in a bloody and seemingly endless cycle of attack and retaliation. Underground paramilitary organizations perpetrated much of the violence: the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the nationalist side and the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association on the other. Although legal political parties were suspected of collaboration with the underground movements, the paramilitaries’ clandestine nature made them unaccountable to any legitimate authority.
Trimble graduated from Bangor Grammar School and studied law at the Queen’s University of Belfast, where he received a first-class honors degree. In 1969, he qualified as a barrister, and joined the law faculty of Queen’s University. The same year, the British government dispatched heavily armed troops to Belfast and other cities and towns in the North. In 1972, Britain suspended regional government in Northern Ireland and initiated direct rule from London. Trimble entered political life in the 1970s as a member of the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party, a newer alignment, at odds with the older unionist factions as well as the nationalists. In 1978 Vanguard disbanded and Trimble joined the larger Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
At Queen’s University, Trimble was promoted to Assistant Dean of the Law Faculty and then Head of the Department of Commercial and Property Law. But while his academic career flourished, he could not escape the violence engulfing Ulster. In 1983 he was in his office at the university when he heard shots fired. Shortly thereafter, he was called on to identify the body of a colleague, assassinated by the IRA.
With no prospect for negotiation between the increasingly violent factions in Ulster, the governments of Britain and Ireland sought areas of agreement. In 1985, the two governments reached their first major agreement over Northern Ireland since the 1920s. Both confirmed that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of its citizens, and the British government recognized, for the first time, a consultative role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland. The agreement infuriated hard-liners on both sides, while offering hope to those who sought an end to the violence.
David Trimble became Chairman of the UUP’s Legal Committee, and in 1990 he was elected to the British Parliament as the member from Upper Bann, a constituency that includes the towns of Lurgan and Portadown. In the 1993, Downing St. Declaration, signed by British Prime Minister John Major and the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Albert Reynolds, Britain affirmed that it had no interest in retaining control over Northern Ireland if the population of the region should freely choose unification with Ireland. While serving in Parliament, Trimble won the support of many of Ulster’s nationalists with his highly visible support for the controversial march by the unionist Orange Order through a Catholic neighborhood in Portadown. Having established his bona fides with his unionist supporters, he won an upset victory to become leader of the UUP.
Trimble’s hardline reputation suggested that he intended to draw the party away from any agreement with other parties in Northern Ireland, and from any contact with the Irish government. To the surprise of his followers, he agreed to meet with John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Ulster, and with leaders of the major parties in Ireland. Shortly after his election, he became the first leader of his party to meet with the Irish Taoiseach in 30 years. In 1997 he agreed to enter multi-party negotiations that would include the hardline nationalist Sinn Féin party.
Former U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell was invited by the British and Irish governments to chair the peace negotiations that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Trimble signed on, over the objections of more than half of his parliamentary colleagues. He won them to his point of view and campaigned vigorously in the island-wide referendum that ratified the agreement, an accomplishment for which he shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with John Hume in 1998. Although there were many difficulties yet to be overcome, these brave men had set in place the foundation of a lasting peace.
In 1998, Trimble won election to serve as First Minister in the newly formed regional government for Northern Ireland. There he undertook the difficult task of disarming rival paramilitaries the nationalist IRA and the unionist UDF. In particular Trimble suspected units of the dissident Provisional IRA of continuing to cache weapons and ammunition in violation of the agreement. In 2001, Trimble resigned in protest but was re-elected a few months later.
David Trimble served as First Minister for the first five years of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and struggled mightily to sustain his party’s support for the power-sharing arrangement. In November 2003, elections for the Assembly resulted in dramatic gains for more extreme parties from both sides of the sectarian divide. At first, it appeared that these results would threaten the stability of the power-sharing agreement, but despite initial fears, the peace agreement has held. Isolated incidents of violence have taken place, but a return to armed conflict has been soundly rejected by the great mass of the population on both sides of the sectarian divide.
In May 2005, David Trimble was defeated for re-election to the British Parliament and stepped down as leader of the UUP. The party’s representation in Parliament had fallen to a single seat, out of 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. The following year, David Trimble received a lifetime appointment to the House of Lords and was named Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey. He did not stand for re-election to the Northern Ireland Assembly at the next election. On joining the House of Lords as a working peer, he joined the Conservative Party, and has worked to bring about a long-term alliance between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionist Party.
David Trimble built his political career, and became leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, as a determined advocate of continued union with Great Britain, opposing any role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland, but as party leader he was willing to take extraordinary chances for peace, repeatedly risking the support of his constituents to win their support for the peace process.
Soon after his election as party leader, he angered many supporters by agreeing to meet leaders of the Republic of Ireland. Although more than half of his parliamentary colleagues initially opposed the Good Friday Agreement, Trimble won the support of the Unionist community and brought his party into the peace process.
After the agreement took effect, he served as First Minister of a new Northern Ireland Assembly, taking further risks by resolutely insisting on disarmament by the region’s paramilitaries as a precondition for further negotiation. “The goal (of peace) is worth it,” he said. “The goal is worth taking risks.”
His courage was noted by the Nobel Prize Committee when, along with John Hume, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “As the head of the Northern Ireland government,” the Committee noted, “he has taken the first steps towards building up the mutual confidence on which a lasting peace must be based.”
(John Hume and David Trimble were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1998 for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Academy of Achievement interviewed both men in Dublin, Ireland at the International Achievement Summit on June 8, 2002. Their interviews are combined here.)
Mr. Hume, when you became leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, you were looking for a new approach to the conflict in Northern Ireland.
We were strongly opposed, myself and my party were strongly opposed to violence, and to the IRA in particular because we argued that when we were a divided people, that violence could not heal the divisions. It only deepened the divisions and made the problem worse. And, of course, violence from one side always led to violence from the other as well, and you had the doctrine of “an eye for an eye,” which, as Mahatma Gandhi did say, leaves everybody blind. So we strongly opposed violence throughout, and what we did was present our analysis of the problem, saying that the people of Northern Ireland were divided, but they were divided about three sets of relationships. They were divided about the relationships within Northern Ireland, and they were divided about the relationships within Ireland, and they were divided about the relationship with Britain. And that for the problem to be solved, that those three sets of relationships should be the agenda at any talks. And given that that should be the agenda, then the British and Irish governments should be together at the table with all the parties.
That was our strategy from the beginning. That eventually was achieved in 1998, when we all got ’round the table and got that agreement. But in those days, the British government would not talk to the Irish government about Northern Ireland, because its policy was that Northern Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, full stop. Therefore, it was none of the business of the Irish government, ignoring the real problem, which was the conflict of two identities: the Britishness of the Unionist people, and the Irishness of the Catholic people, the Nationalist people.
In 1988, you initiated dialogue with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, which was a highly controversial move. You endangered your own life. Why was that such an important step, in your view?
John Hume: The IRA and Sinn Féin, what was called the Republican movement, were engaged in violence in order to attempt to solve our problem, and I was strongly opposed to that violence. And, of course, there was violence as well from the Unionist side, the loyalist paramilitaries, and of course, I felt it’s everyone’s duty to do everything they could to get the violence stopped. And, of course, thousands of British soldiers in our streets couldn’t stop the violence. And when I started my dialogue, of course, I was very heavily attacked for it. But, as I made clear at the time, if thousands of soldiers in our streets can’t stop the violence, if I can save one single human life by talking, it’s my duty to do so. And, I engaged directly in dialogue with Gerry Adams. And, of course, the dialogue arose out of the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, and my party, we were very heavily involved in the creation of that agreement.
We published a policy document in April 1981, and if you read that policy document, you’re reading the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. We argued strongly that, given the three sets of relationships, the British and Irish governments should come together and set up institutions, and those institutions were set up in the Anglo-Irish agreement.
The basic policy of the British government was that since the majority of people in Northern Ireland wished to remain in the United Kingdom, that was that. We asked what would happen if the majority wanted something else, if the majority wanted to see Irish unity. The British government then agreed to say, “Well, if that happens, we legislate for it.” That removed the fundamental reasons that the IRA had always given for the use of violence. The historian in me knew what created the IRA and that movement. They believed that Britain was in Ireland defending their own interests, therefore the Irish had the right to use violence to put them out. My argument was that that type of thinking was out of date. I then came out with a statement and said, “Britain has now declared their neutrality on the future of Ireland, and therefore, violence has absolutely no role to play.” By keeping up that statement, I eventually got a message back that the Sinn Féin people would like to talk to me about it.
I engaged in the talks with Gerry Adams, and the basic request to me was to prove what I was saying was true. I kept both the British and Irish governments fully informed of my dialogue with Gerry Adams, and in the end, I asked them to prove what I was saying was true, which led to the Downing Street Declaration, which made very clear that the British had no selfish economic or strategic interests in remaining in Ireland, and that if people agreed on Irish unity, they would legislate for it. That led straightaway to the cease fires, and led also to the dialogue with all parties and the two governments around the one table.
Mr. Trimble, in 1995 you were chosen to lead the Ulster Unionist Party. Why were you chosen?
David Trimble: The delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council made the choice, and they chose me. My pitch to the council was that I was going to change the way we did things. Instead of the defensive mindset that, unfortunately, had dominated Unionists up until then, I would make a serious effort to achieve things, and for that purpose I would prepare to go and meet people and talk to people that, in the past, we hadn’t talked to.
Including Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin?
David Trimble: In the first instance, that actually meant John Hume, who was my first point of call, and it also meant going to Dublin and speaking to the Irish Prime Minister, which, again, we had not done. Gerry Adams was down at the end of that trail, not the beginning, because in 1995, with the situation where we were not engaged at that stage, not engaged in a serious direct discussion with Irish Nationalists or with the Irish government. Now, in doing that and talking to these people, I was not changing our political stance one iota. We are still a Unionist party that is there for the union of the United Kingdom, and very firmly dedicated to that. What I was doing was changing the approach on things, and indeed, trying to get a political agreement which would create and provide for stability, political stability in Northern Ireland. Now, from ’95 to ’98, we did actually achieve that.
Mr. Hume, how did you envision a peace agreement between parties with such differing points of view?
John Hume: In coming to that agreement, my party had a clear philosophy throughout. In Northern Ireland, we should have institutions that respected the differences of the people and that gave no victory to either side. In other words, we always argued for partnership government, or power sharing, as it was called. Representatives of all sections of the community should be in government, and there should be a council of ministers between Ireland, North and South, that was our strategy. We argued strongly for that, and that was eventually agreed. I always say that in my approach to that agreement, I was very heavily inspired by my European experience, because I was a member of the European Parliament.
The European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution. Therefore, it’s the duty of every area of conflict to study how they did it, and that’s what we did. And of course, the three principles at the heart of that are the three principles at the heart of our Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Principle number one: respect for difference, no victory for either side. Number two: institutions which respect our differences, an assembly elected by a proportional system of voting, so that all sections of the people are represented, and an executive government elected by the assembly by a proportional system so that all sections are in government. Then the third principle, which in my opinion is the most important principle, which I call the healing process. We then work together, all sections of our people working together in our common interests, which is the principle that when our party was founded way back in the early ’70s, was central to common interests being real politics, economic development of our people, something which is in the area of agreement for all sections of people. And now we are doing that, working together. That’s the beginning of the healing process, as I say. We’re spilling our sweat together and not our blood.
My belief is that as we do that, over the years, the barriers of the past — the distrust and prejudices of the past — will be eroded, and a new society will evolve, a new Ireland based on agreement and respect for difference, in which Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter will be living together in agreement and mutual respect. That’s the strategy that myself and my party have pursued and are pursuing.
Mr. Trimble, what are you most proud of having accomplished up to this point, realizing that things are not completely settled?
David Trimble: One does have to point to the fact that we did achieve an agreement, that we had that agreement endorsed by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland; that despite very considerable political difficulties since then, we have actually managed to implement the greater part of the political agenda of that agreement, and we have restored local parliamentary institutions in Northern Ireland, that we have a local administration in place which is working, maybe not working ideally, but is still actually there. Those are the significant political developments that one’s had a hand in and obviously, one would point to that as being the things that one looks back at with most satisfaction, but I realize that it’s still work in progress.
Mr. Hume, what led you to believe a lasting peace was possible?
I always tell the story of the first time I went to Strasbourg in 1979, to the European Parliament. I went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kehl in Germany. And I stopped in the middle of the bridge and meditated — 1979 — that if I had stood on this bridge 30 years ago, I thought, at the end of the Second World War, and at the end of the first half of that century, which was the worst in the history of the world, two world wars, and about a hundred million people slaughtered, who could have dreamt then that in the second half of that century, those same peoples would unite in a European Union? But they did.