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‘Dad, it’s the White House on the phone’: David Trimble’s son and wife reflect on role he played in peace process

Family of former Ulster Unionist Party leader discuss his love of his music, the risks he was willing to take and frustration with Blair after the agreement

Nicholas Trimble is wearing his late father’s shoes and sitting opposite the armchair where he always sat.

Surrounded by hundreds of alphabetically ordered LPs – mainly classical, the Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks CDs are in the drawers, he says with a grin – Nicholas and his mother, Daphne, joke that the carpet I’m standing on is older than the house.

“Dad brought it here from their last house over 40 years ago, it’s older than me,” he says.

Daphne Trimble adds, roaring with laughter: “He would never let me do anything to change the carpet. He said there’s ‘nothing wrong with it’, it’s a ‘good Ulster Carpet Mills carpet’. The fact it was threadbare, it didn’t matter.”


The Irish Times has been invited to the family’s Lisburn home, and to the room that became David Trimble’s retreat during the fraught negotiations that led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement; where he put his records on, turned up an amplifier and listened to Bach, Vaughan Williams and Bruce Springsteen blasting out from two enormous free-standing speakers.

Today, the pillar-like Linn speakers stand erect at either side of the fireplace.

The former Ulster Unionist Party leader, who became the first person to serve in the role of first minister in Stormont’s new powersharing government, died last July.

“Music was his thing. These are only some of his records and you’ll notice there’s no TV in this room. This space would have been Dad’s unwinding space,” Nicholas tells us. “He would come home here and turn up his music. You could hear it outside.”

Daphne says: “The great thing about this house is that it’s split level with the bedrooms on the other level. So he could play the music louder here and not wake the children. In those final weeks before the agreement he would come home with the documents and we would go through them together, line by line, in this room. I was a solicitor by background and I think the fresh eyes helped.”

Fr Alec Reid, the Belfast priest who played a crucial role in the peace process acting as a secret conduit between the IRA and British and Irish governments, was among those who visited the house to meet the UUP leader privately.

“There were other people who David didn’t want our neighbours to see that he was meeting, the more sensitive. Sinn Féin basically. There was another house put at his disposal where he met them,” she says.

Nicholas was 11 years old when the historic peace deal was signed on Good Friday in 1998. His most vivid memory is the day after it. “Dad came home and the only words he said were: ‘If anyone phones, I’m not in.’

“He sat on his armchair, and of course the phone was going crazy. Me and my two older siblings – we deliberately had no answer machine so the kids operated the telephone answering service – were picking up the phone and just lying to everybody – no, he’s not in, no he’s not in.

“And the one that I remember that caused me a crisis of faith, because you do what your dad says, was when I answered and an American voice said, ‘Hello, I’m looking to speak to David Trimble, it’s the White House here.’

“And I thought, can I lie here again? I told them to hold on one second and came into this room and said, ‘Dad, it’s the White House on the phone.’ He sighed and turned and said, ‘Tell them to phone back in 15 minutes.’

“So I came back, and said, ‘Can you phone back in 15 minutes, thank you.’”

Perched in the corner of the room is the bound Nobel Peace Prize certificate jointly awarded to David Trimble and former SDLP leader, John Hume, for their instrumental role in securing the accord that ended the Troubles.

At a recent tribute event honouring the two men on the 25th anniversary of the agreement, former US president Bill Clinton told a packed Guildhall in Derry – Nicholas, his mother and sister Vicky were in the front row – that the pair had “put their careers and lives on the line” for peace.

Former Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has since credited the “courage” of Trimble for “going against the grain of unionist thinking at the time”.

The UUP leader famously only ever spoke two words to him during the negotiations, “Grow up” in the gents toilets when Adams asked “How are you doing David?”

Within two years of the deal, Trimble the Traitor graffiti was daubed in large capital letters at the bottom of the street where the family lived, as anti-agreement unionists led a backlash that ultimately cost him his Westminster seat and party leadership.

Dad took unionism to a place it had never been before; then there was that kickback in those 2002-2005 years.

—  Nicholas Trimble

In school corridors, insults were hurled at Nicholas Trimble (a UUP councillor since 2016) and protesters draped in Union Jack flags regularly gathered on the pavement outside their home.

Daphne Trimble would tell her four children to “close the curtains” as crowds held placards and shouted abuse at them.

“I grew up with everyone knowing who my dad was. He was the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, then there was the agreement and then he was the first minister,” says Trimble.

“The jokes went from, ‘Does your da own a Ferrari?’ to ‘Tell your da he needs to do this.’ When I started secondary school, people would have shouted to me in the corridor, ‘1, 2, 3 DUP, no traitors here.’

“Our school was very good but from about 2000 on when I was a teenager, the jibes became nastier and more politically charged. That’s when I realised, there’s a shift happening in unionism.

“It’s now that I think, and this is my own view, that Dad was actually the shift. I think that traditionally, unionism has never been the party of wanting to take great steps. It’s the party with the political ideology of status quo. Dad took unionism to a place it had never been before; then there was that kickback in those 2002-2005 years.

“For other parties, getting the deal over the line was it. They were done and exited stage left; whereas Dad almost had a harder job post-agreement.

“But he never reacted to the graffiti or the protesters; with a wave of the hand it was dismissed, it wasn’t worth his while to focus on it. We followed suit.”

Sitting alongside her son and listening to him speak about the abuse he received in school, Daphne looks emotional: “I didn’t know about that, Nicholas. This is the first time I’ve heard this.”

She also became a target and was physically attacked by protesters outside an election count centre in 2001. “A mob had gathered outside by the time we were leaving,” she recalls. “It was quite unpleasant. I would have been kicked to the ground if they [UUP colleagues] hadn’t been holding me up. I did have blood trickling down my legs and bruised shins.

“But the thing that I feel worse about was when I got a warning from police that protesters were planning to picket outside our house on a Saturday morning.

“Sarah, who was our youngest, did swimming lessons. Back then you had to physically go down to the pool to sign your child on. She needed to have her swimming lesson so I went down.

“For some reason, David wasn’t here and I was leaving the children on their own. I thought I can’t leave them to face the protesters, but I assumed they wouldn’t come early in the morning.

“Well, I was wrong. I went into Lisburn early to sign her. When I came back, at the end of our street I saw a person wrapped in a Union Jack. I rushed home and my eldest, Richard, said to me: ‘Calm down mother, they’ve been and they’re gone.’”

With the first anniversary of her husband’s death approaching following a series of major events marking the agreement’s milestone anniversary, Daphne says she has found it too difficult to watch the media coverage. “I’ve watched a bit but it’s still pretty raw with David not being here,” she says.

Her son booked tickets to watch the sell-out play, Agreement, based on the knife-edge talks in the days before its signing, in Belfast’s Lyric theatre.

“I wouldn’t have been brave enough to go on my own; I went with the children,” she says.

“The actor who played him had got a lot of his mannerisms… The tugging of the shirt cuffs, I’d forgotten that David used to do that. It was eerie but testament to his qualities as an actor.”

On the coffee table beside a striking bronze sculpture of a pregnant woman on one side and newborn on the other – entitled Bearing the Burden of Peace, it was gifted to the Nobel Laureates by St Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota in 2000 – lies a bundle of David Trimble’s personal correspondence from the negotiations.

The family are giving the papers to Queen’s University Belfast – a 12-box consignment has already been sent and six empty boxes are in the hall waiting to be filled – where he lectured in law in the 1970s before entering politics.

“We’ve been going through a lot of Dad’s old papers and we want Queen’s to have them. They’ll be accessible for academic study which I think Dad will be quite pleased with,” says Nicholas.

Among them is a letter he sent to former UK prime minister Tony Blair on April 7th, 1998 – three days before Good Friday – in which he criticises the Irish government and insists he has “negotiated in good faith”, adding “it’s now apparent others have not…”

The time written on it is 12.30pm.

“If you received this letter, you’d think, well, this ain’t happening – and that’s just days before the deadline,” he adds.

His mother credits Bertie Ahern for “getting the whole thing back on track”: “When David wrote that letter, Bertie had gone to Dublin at this stage after his mother died. He came back from the funeral and that, in many ways, is testament to Bertie’s impact on David. They actually got on very well. Bertie is still phoning me up to see if I’m okay.”

Was the agreement worth sacrificing his political career?

“It was after the agreement that things got really ugly because of the lack of decommissioning,” says Daphne. “Our party was a very divided place for those years. We felt Tony Blair did throw David under the bus as the decommissioning didn’t happen in the way he promised it would. But yes, the peace was worth it, I feel very proud.”

For Nicholas Trimble, the landmark deal would never have brokered without his father: “If he was here today, he would dance around the issue, but yes, I think in his heart, he believed it was worth it too. He would definitely make that sacrifice again.

“That’s us looking with hindsight back over it. He knew it would be difficult, there was always the enemy at the gates as it were, he always had the hardliner anti-agreement lobby who were snapping at his heels. Events overtook him.”

Television pictures of Trimble triumphantly joining hands with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley as he led an Orange Order parade along the nationalist Garvaghy Road during the Drumcree dispute in 1995 had characterised him as a hardliner before his transformation into a more moderate statesman and key architect of the peace deal.

I do genuinely think, had it not been for him, and the real energy and determination to do it, it wouldn’t have happened

—  Nicholas Trimble

During his tribute speech to the Nobel Laureates in Derry, Bill Clinton remembered Trimble for being “so modest”, adding, “I felt he never quite got the credit he deserved”.

Paisley led the anti-agreement charge against the UUP leader before taking the first minister seat alongside Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister in 2007. “So I think it was bittersweet for him,” adds Nicholas.

“The UUP were surpassed by the DUP in 2005, the fact that Paisley then, basically by his actions, acquiesced what Dad had been advocating for… there was a moral victory there certainly. I think Dad would have taken some solace from that.”

He expresses sadness, however, at Stormont’s collapse after “mountains were moved” 25 years ago.

“I’m relatively new in the Ulster Unionist Party… but I can see how difficult it would have been for him at the time.

“Dad was going up and down the country going into wee pokey halls to meet branches and associations to convince 10 here and 20 there. I do genuinely think, had it not been for him, and the real energy and determination to do it, it wouldn’t have happened.

“I’m not sure that anyone else would have put in the hours… or taken the risk.”