David Trimble book extract: An historic peace deal was agreed, but Trimble forgot his bank PIN

On his way back to Lisburn that Good Friday evening in 1998 Trimble stopped off at a cash dispenser. He had promised Daphne and their children he would take them to London for an Easter break as soon as the negotiations were over at Stormont, and said he would get the necessary cash for the trip.

But as he slipped his card into the ATM machine, Trimble could not remember his PIN number.

I tried several times to punch in the number but without success.

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Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble takes a break during a marathon 20 hour talks session at Hillsborough in 1999 to make a phone call. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON/PACEMAKER

“It was pure stress – I just couldn’t get the digits in the right order. I was totally stressed out and it wasn’t until Monday that the number came back to me,” Trimble later recalled.

So, here was the man on whom the entire world had waited to give his assent for an historic peace agreement, and he was going home to his wife and children without a penny in his pocket!

Even before he had signed the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, Trimble was translated by unionist ultras as the worst traitor since Governor Lundy. Every day of the talks he had to drive through a gauntlet of DUP supporters waving placards denouncing him as a renegade. The debate on whether Trimble had sold out was in essence the old intellectual struggle between rational and emotional unionism.

Shortly after the agreement was announced, Trimble had told the world that this was “as good as it gets.” This was his clearest admission yet that unionism would have to swallow unpalatable compromises on prisoners, arms and eventually Sinn Fein in government as the price for changing Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic’s constitution, forcing nationalists to accept the principle of consent and the curbing of cross-border integration.

One forensic piece of analysis of the agreement that same year seemed to support the contention that Trimble had indeed achieved a great deal on the North-South dimension of the talks leading to the peace deal.

This was the assertion made by Trimble and his supporters that they had repelled pan-nationalism’s attempts to turn cross-border bodies into another ‘Trojan Horse’ which would eventually trundle unionists into a United Ireland.

Three years earlier a British government blueprint on Northern Ireland’s future called the ‘Frameworks Document’ presaged that very same danger, with proposals for cross-border bodies with executive powers that could be the embryonic structure of a unitary Irish state. One of the chief architects of the ‘Frameworks Document’ in 1995, Sir David Fell, now compared and contrasted it to the Belfast Agreement.

In a detailed speech just three months after the agreement, and not reported at the time, Sir David claimed that the Good Friday deal posed less of a threat to unionists than ‘Frameworks’.


I have accepted that many unionists were terrified that the North-South bodies envisaged in ‘Frameworks’ would assume quasi-governmental functions. In other words, it would be a nascent third government and lead to a united Ireland by the back door. Fell outlined how the agreement was radically different in two important respects:

“The ‘Frameworks’ also envisaged that the North/South body would ‘oversee delegated executive, harmonizing or consultative functions’. This terminology, which so frightened unionists, has disappeared in the agreement, which requires North/South Ministerial council to ‘develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland – including through implementation on an all-island basis and cross-border bases – on matters of mutual interest’. A further element of the ‘Framework’ which frightened unionists was the section which indicated that the North/South body should have a ‘clear institutional identity’ and its own ‘dynamic’, thus further heightening unionist paranoia that this was indeed a one-way street to a united Ireland. I find no such language in the agreement; which says in terms, that any further development of the initial arrangements of the North/South Council will be subject to the extent of the competencies and responsibilities of the two administrations.”

Fell’s conclusion was that, overall, the changes that Trimble and his team managed to win between the ‘Frameworks’ document and the agreement were in Sir David’s words “favourable to the unionist position”.

Sir David also noted one particularly significant omission in the agreement from the ‘Frameworks’ document, which in the latter case mentioned ‘aspects of industrial development’ in an all Ireland context. Its absence in the 1998 deal confirmed his view that attracting inward investment for the whole of the island of Ireland was problematic especially given the different taxation and grant regimes between North and South combined with regional and institutional jealousies.

One of Trimble’s advisers characterized these competing tax, grant and spend regimes as the ‘North Tipperary question’. Bluntly, it juxtaposes the republican rhetoric of southern political parties with the realities of economic competition between the two states of Ireland. Why would a Fianna Fail TD for North Tipperary be happy to let a free-standing cross-border body decide that a German car factory be set up in David Trimble’s Upper Bann constituency rather than his own? Trimble himself was well versed in the vagaries of economic co-operation on the continent and the way conflicting regional and national rivalries can sometimes complicate or frustrate the grandiose designs for European unity in Brussels.

To further evaluate how much Trimble actually achieved in watering down the North-South dimension in the agreement it is worth laying out what Gerry Adams was demanding out of the Castle Buidlings negotiations in the spring of 1998. On March 8 the Sinn Fein president set down his bottom line in the run-up to the Belfast Agreement in an article for the now defunct ‘Ireland On Sunday’ newspaper.

Adams wanted cross-border bodies operating independently of the Northern Ireland Assembly; the retention of Articles 2 and 3; and policing and courts coming under the remit of a new all Ireland institution.

Of course the end product on Good Friday was a reduced number of cross-border bodies, under the Stormont Assembly’s control, the dumping of Articles 2 and 3, and no provision for any all-Ireland directed police and courts service. Judged by his ‘Ireland on Sunday’ shopping list of demands Gerry Adams’ losses were David Trimble’s and unionism’s gains.

l In tomorrow’s News Letter: The desperate operation to get Trimble back from European holiday to confront the horrors of the Omagh bomb and demand a security crackdown on the killers


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