David Trimble was ‘despairing and hysterical’ over unionist leadership heave

State papers: Former NI first minister grew increasingly frustrated during 2000 and 2001 as the IRA refused to decommission

David Trimble was described as being “despairing and hysterical” by senior British officials as his leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party came under attack from party rivals during 2000 and 2001. Backed into a corner by colleagues such as Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside who led the opposition within the party to the Belfast Agreement, the then Northern Ireland first minister took increasingly drastic action to shore up his position.

That included blocking Sinn Féin ministers from North-South bodies and threatening to resign as first minister by July 2001 if the IRA had not verifiably decommissioned its weapons by then.

It came at a time when the peace process was mired in disputes between the nationalist and unionist parties over policing reform, demilitarisation and, especially, decommissioning.

During that period Trimble was described by Northern secretary Peter Mandelson as holding on to the leadership “by a knife edge”. In one of several challenges to his leadership he survived a vote of the membership of the party with only 4 per cent to spare.


The pressures faced by Trimble, combined with his own flinty temper, resulted in senior politicians, diplomats and observers variously describing him as depressed, jumpy and agitated during the time. In addition the atmosphere within the UUP was portrayed as “poisonous”, and his relationship with the deputy first minister, the SDLP’s Séamus Mallon, was, a colleague noted, “as brittle and as difficult as ever”.

In a meeting in Washington in October 2000 with the Irish ambassador to the US, Seán Ó hUiginn, a senior official in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), Joe Pilling, said that Trimble was meeting British prime minister Tony Blair that morning. He said Trimble had requested it some time ago at a time when he was “despairing and hysterical” but could not be accommodated by Blair until that morning.

Pilling observed that the UUP leader was in serious trouble and so was the Belfast Agreement. “The stark reality is that if Trimble goes, the agreement goes with him,” Pilling told the ambassador.

Trimble had little luck in winning concessions on policing, such as retaining the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and was increasingly frustrated at the IRA’s refusal to decommission weapons.

His relationship with Mallon had also fractured by 2000. A senior NIO official, PJ Johnson, had lunch with Eamonn McKee of the Department of Foreign Affairs in New York. Johnson expressed bafflement over the fall-out between Trimble and Mallon.

“(Johnson said that) Trimble genuinely liked Mallon but did not feel that this was reciprocated and he was frustrated with Mallon’s apparent inability to ease his current difficulties. Trimble felt this particularly sharply with the SDLP attempt to strip him of the merest figleaf of the RUC name as currently set out in the Bill. Johnson said it appeared that Mallon was on the outside, not the inside of the government. I said that Mallon realised that policing had to be got right, that it was not tenable to compromise the Patten project.”

Following another Trimble meeting with Blair in London in February 2001, the journalist Ken Reid told an Irish diplomat that Trimble was “very depressed” after the meeting. He said Trimble told him that Blair had nothing to offer him.

Trimble’s threat to resign on July 1st if the IRA did not deliver decommissioning took both governments by surprise.

In March 2001, Trimble’s adviser Stephen King met Irish diplomat Ray Bassett in Belfast. He told Bassett the atmosphere at party meetings was “poisonous”.

In an assessment the secretary general of the Department of Foreign Affairs said that in conversations with Trimble the UUP leader suspected that Sinn Féin might be looking beyond him as leader towards Donaldson.

That view was given substance by a letter written by the ambassador Ó hUiginn following a meeting with Gerry Adams in Washington in June 2001. “My overall impression from our conversation,” wrote Ó hUiginn, “was that Sinn Féin do not challenge the notion that Trimble’s resignation will materialise, and seem to think that Trimble’s record suggests that he is not in any case ever going to prove a viable partner. They seemed particularly focused on the likelihood that even if something were done on arms on this occasion Trimble would simply succumb to fresh pressures to create a new decommissioning blockage a little down the road.”

In the event Trimble did temporarily resign on July 1st that year when there was no decommissioning. He was subsequently reappointed and survived as first minister until October 2002, when the institutions were suspended after allegations emerged of an IRA spy ring in Stormont.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times