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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Profile: David Trimble
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

David Trimble was known by many commentators as the "Harry Houdini of Northern Ireland politics".

The Ulster Unionist leader survived so many challenges to his leadership and his policy that most observers almost lost count.

But with the loss of his seat in Upper Bann, it now appears Mr Trimble's luck has finally run out.

Over recent years Mr Trimble appeared to thrive under pressure.

Mr Trimble survived two challenges to his leadership
Mr Trimble survived two challenges to his leadership

That pressure has come from those unionists who regard him as a traitor who bowed to pressure from the government, nationalists and republicans.

Mr Trimble did not see it that way.

Ranged against him were not only the forces of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, which denounced him for signing the Good Friday Agreement, but also many within his own party.

The Ulster Unionist leader withstood several challenges at meetings of his party's 900 strong ruling council.

While Mr Trimble tended to emerge victorious, the margins of his victory were so slight that the challenge has never gone away - even after the defection of his nemesis, Jeffrey Donaldson, to the DUP.

Mr Trimble survived not one, but two, challenges to his leadership at his party's annual meeting in March 2004.

One year on, as the party celebrated its centenary, he was unopposed.

Mr Trimble's emergence as the figurehead of pro-Agreement unionism would have been hard to predict in his early days as a unionist hardliner.

David Trimble was born in October 1944 and is married with four children.

When the news broke that David Trimble was the surprise winner of the Ulster Unionist leadership election in 1995, some feared it marked the end of the peace process

A Queen's University law lecturer by profession, he entered politics through the hardline Vanguard Party in the early 1970s.

He joined mainstream unionism in 1978 and entered Westminster as the MP for Upper Bann in 1990.

In 1995, he appeared at the annual Drumcree parade, celebrating hand-in-hand with the DUP leader Ian Paisley before hundreds of Orangemen after they won their stand-off with the nationalist community of the Garvaghy Road.

So when the news broke that he was the surprise winner of the Ulster Unionist leadership election in 1995, some feared it marked the end of the peace process.

But Mr Trimble confounded those predictions by keeping his party within the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

Leading a phalanx of unionists into Castle Buildings at Stormont, Mr Trimble became the first unionist leader since the 1920s to negotiate with Sinn Fein.

Uphill struggle: The UUP's five seats are under threat
Uphill struggle: The UUP's five seats are under threat

He pressed ahead with the Agreement even though key lieutenant Jeffrey Donaldson deserted him just before it was signed.

Mr Trimble was rewarded for his efforts by plaudits from London, Dublin and Washington and the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize which he shared with the then SDLP leader John Hume.

His acceptance speech showed that he regarded the business of bringing peace to Northern Ireland as very much a work in progress.

'Tomorrow is another day'

Mr Trimble talked of the need for "a beginning to the decommissioning of weapons as an earnest of the decommissioning of hearts that must follow" and described what had been achieved as "a peace of sorts in Northern Ireland - but it is still something of an armed peace".

Looking to the future, he allowed himself an uncharacteristic flourish: "We have started and we will go on. Sometimes we will stumble, maybe even go back a bit.

"But this need not matter if, in the spirit of an old Irish proverb we say to ourselves, 'Tomorrow is another day'."

As he had predicted, however, the stumbling blocks did not disappear. Mr Trimble often found himself locking horns with republicans over the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons.

As the 2001 general election approached, Mr Trimble knew that he was facing a tough battle with the Democratic Unionists for supremacy among the community.

Seeking to shore up his own support, he pledged to resign as first minister should there be no movement on IRA arms decommissioning.

Two of his own party's assembly members failed to vote for his re-election, again throwing the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive into crisis

However, the Democratic Unionists treated the election as a second referendum on the Good Friday Agreement and pummelled the UUP, increasing its own representation from two to five seats - just one behind Mr Trimble's party.

The IRA agreed to put some weapons beyond use in October 2001, and Mr Trimble agreed to return to government.

But two of his own party's assembly members failed to vote for his re-election, again throwing the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive into crisis.

Mr Trimble only returned to power on the back of the votes of centre ground politicians temporarily "redesignated" as unionists.

Mr Trimble and his new deputy first minister Mark Durkan hoped for a period of stability to prove their power-sharing government's worth.

But in October 2002, allegations about IRA intelligence gathering in the Northern Ireland Office once again brought their administration crashing down.

The British and Irish governments sought to restore devolution by publishing a joint declaration. However, the proposals linked to the declaration only served to re-ignite the Ulster Unionist Party's internal divisions.

Mr Donaldson and his fellow MPs challenged Mr Trimble as leader
Mr Donaldson and his fellow MPs challenged Mr Trimble as leader

Jeffrey Donaldson and his fellow MPs Martin Smyth, who challenged Mr Trimble as leader in March 2000, and David Burnside, pressed for the declaration to be rejected.

The Ulster Unionist Council approved Mr Trimble's "wait and see" approach by a 54% vote. But this only spurred the MPs to open rebellion.

Post-Donaldson the endless emergency ruling council meetings have gone, as have the bitter party officer meetings.

But so has the intense media interest now that the DUP has eclipsed Mr Trimble's party as the leading voice in unionism.

The Westminster elections of 2005 have proved to be a defining moment.


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