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A giant legacy beset by pygmies

The death of David Trimble comes as his historic legacy has never seemed under greater threat

David Trimble speaking at the Conservative party conference in Blackpool in 2001 (Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)

Nothing would for me more graphically illustrate the seismic shift in Irish affairs produced by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) than my conversation over a late night drink with an IRA convicted terrorist, later Irish parliamentarian, Arthur Morgan. It was not long after the Agreement came into force, and I had recently arrived as ambassador in Dublin.

“It’s a funny old world, Arthur,” I remarked. “10 years ago, you’d have been planning to murder me”. “ Oh no, ambassador,” he replied. “Not 10 years: more like two or three”. I smiled wanly.

The death of David Trimble on July 24 brought back many memories of the Good Friday Agreement and the huge sacrifices made and risks taken by Trimble to ensure that the nightmare of The Troubles, 30 years of pain, suffering and over 3,000 deaths would finally be laid to rest. Rightly hailed after his death as one of the architects of the Agreement together with the nationalist leader John Hume (for which they both shared the Nobel Peace prize), Trimble was excoriated by hardliners in the Unionist community for signing it and going on to be, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the first minister of the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive.

He was eventually toppled in 2005 by his nemesis, Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose successful electoral platform promised no dealings with Sinn Fein as they were no more than a front for the IRA. And yet only two years later, Paisley performed a 180-degree turn and went into government with Sinn Fein and with the former IRA gunman Martin McGuinness as his deputy.

It was one of the many ironies of the GFA and it was a bitter moment for Trimble that his political opponent should milk the success of policies which he, Trimble, had done so much to bring about.

Both Trimble and Paisley travelled a long way from their early hardline days when they had both been vehemently opposed to any power-sharing agreement. In truth, one had in the round already been hammered out nearly a quarter of a century earlier at an agreement made at Sunningdale. Ulster Unionist opposition, violence and a general strike caused the agreement’s collapse in 1974. Paisley and Trimble were both active in Sunningdale’s collapse, both on the wrong side of history.

The essence of the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing, cross-border institutions and majority consent for any change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland was already evident in the Sunningdale agreement. To the extent that John Hume’s deputy at the time of the GFA, Seamus Mallon, famously described the GFA as “Sunningdale for slow learners”. Slow and painful and at the cost of thousands of lives and blighted families.

Trimble’s damascene conversion from a reactionary unionist in 1995 to an enlightened prophet in 1998 was remarkable and owes much to his conviction that the GFA safeguarded the Union, however much Paisley’s DUP sought to undermine that belief.

What undermined Trimble’s position more than anything, however, was the IRA’s unwillingness to decommission their arms. While the GFA spoke of the need to put arms held by paramilitaries beyond use, Sinn Fein maintained the fiction that while they would use their good offices with the IRA to encourage them to decommission, they could not commit them. The reality of course is that, certainly at that time, it was the IRA Army Council who literally and figuratively called the shots.

The IRA’s public posture to demands that they decommission was to boast “not an ounce, not a bullet”. This was hugely damaging for Trimble and, with unconditional IRA prisoner release implemented, was to lead to the UUP’s support being hollowed out at the expense of the DUP.

And yet it need not have been like this. I took the view that there should be a linking of IRA decommissioning to IRA prisoner release. We had a pretty good idea of the size of the IRA armoury, so it would have been a simple matter to say that the first 10% of IRA decommissioning of weapons would lead to the release of 10% of IRA prisoners being released. And so on.

The Irish government maintained, however, and so convinced the British government, that the IRA would never wear such linkage and that to insist would risk the collapse of the negotiations leading to the GFA. My view was rooted in my experience of being head of counterterrorism in the Foreign Office a few years earlier and my conviction that when coming to the end of their campaign nothing mattered more to terrorists than release of their prisoners.

If this linkage had brought the IRA to decommission, then Trimble would have maintained his position as leader of the largest Unionist party. The IRA finally completed decommissioning in 2005, too late for Trimble. As it is, notwithstanding the brief bromance between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, when first and deputy first minister respectively between 2007 and 2008, the largest two parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein and the DUP, have come from the two extremes and the least likely to make a wholesale success of power-sharing and cross-community reconciliation.

Which brings us to where we are today. No longer having the excuse of decommissioning to avoid power-sharing, the DUP have a new axe to grind. The Northern Ireland Protocol.

Because, after the Brexit referendum, the UK announced that it was leaving the EU Single Market and the customs union, there was an immediate risk of turning the internal border in Ireland into an external border for the single market and the customs union – with all the potential checks that this implies.

Both the UK and the EU wanted to avoid a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement removed security checkpoints from the border and helped make it all but invisible. Customs checks would undermine much of that progress.

The only way to avoid the return of a physical border on the island of Ireland was found through an agreement between the British government and the EU, the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol. Under its terms, the customs border was pushed out into the Irish Sea, thus becoming an internal customs border which divided Northern Ireland economically from the rest of the United Kingdom.

So it is no surprise that Unionists have been strongly critical of the protocol as Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK. They see the arrangement as dangerous to the economic and constitutional position of Northern Ireland by creating a maritime border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. As a consequence the DUP, who ran second to Sinn Fein in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections, have refused to take their allotted place in the Northern Ireland executive thus paralysing the whole process of devolved power-sharing government.

The UK government has now introduced legislation giving it the power unilaterally to override the protocol which prime minister Boris Johnson negotiated in late 2019. Most lawyers maintain that if enacted the legislation will breach international law. At the time of the signature of the protocol, Johnson said: “There will be no checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, or Northern Ireland to Great Britain”, thus flatly contradicting the terms of the Northern Ireland deal.

It is this contradiction between what the government signed and what it now wants to do to appease Unionist disquiet and to see a power-sharing executive restored that a new prime minister will have to address.

The EU for its part is adamant that the protocol cannot be renegotiated but is willing to work flexibly on how the rules apply. In the meantime, the European Commission is taking preliminary legal action in the European Court of Justice against the UK for breaching the protocol by failing to enforce EU customs and excise checks.

If the government goes ahead and actually overrides the protocol, the EU may retaliate by suspending or scrapping parts or all of the EU-UK post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation deal so painfully negotiated in December 2020, which would mean a trade war with the imposition of tariffs on British goods going to the EU.

Politically in Northern Ireland, which voted in favour of remaining in the EU in 2016, those who want unification with the Irish Republic have found their position significantly strengthened by the prospect of what has come to be effectively a border in the Irish Sea. On the Unionist side, the arrangement has been described by a Unionist politician, Jim Allister, as putting Northern Ireland “in a waiting room for Irish unity with the door locked from the outside”. And beyond the rhetoric, there are ominous sounds from Ulster Unionist paramilitaries.

The Good Friday Agreement, David Trimble’s historic legacy, has never seemed under greater threat.

Sir Ivor Roberts was a British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy, and president of Trinity College, Oxford

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