Independent peacemaker Different pace: David Trimble, leader of the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, goes into elections and peace talks marching to a different drummer.

Sun Journal

April 16, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- David Trimble doesn't own a bowler hat.

For a Protestant politician in Northern Ireland, this omission is a big deal. The bowler hat is a badge of Protestant identity, part of the uniform that Orangemen wear as they march through streets, celebrating victories in long-ago battles that shaped the landscape. Celebrating their Britishness.

"People keep telling me to get a hat," he says with a laugh. "But I won't."

Mr. Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, the most powerful Protestant political party in Northern Ireland, is an independent spirit.

Some say this 51-year-old former law professor represents the kinder, gentler face of unionism. Others say he's just another Protestant firebrand out to maintain Northern Ireland's union with Britain any way he can.

Whatever view, one thing is certain: For the time being, Mr. Trimble is a main player in the Northern Ireland peace process.

"It took a Richard Nixon to go to China," says John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, Northern Ireland's main Roman Catholic party. "It takes a strong unionist to lead his people into a new agreement."

Mr. Trimble figures to be back in the news as politicians try to mend the Northern Ireland peace process, which was shattered when the Irish Republican Army called off its cease-fire in February and resumed bombings in London.

Next month brings elections to a body for which negotiating teams for all-party talks in June will be drawn. The elections are Mr. Trimble's brainchild. Plenty of hard bargaining lies ahead. The majority Protestants want to remain part of Great Britain. Many in the minority Roman Catholic community, favor a united Ireland.

No one questions where Mr. Trimble stands. From his youthful association with fringe parties to his combative speeches to his rise to the top of the Protestant political pyramid, he has long been associated with staunch, hard-line unionism. But during an interview, Mr. Trimble displays charm and political guile. Ask him about being portrayed as hot-tempered, irascible and hard-lined, and he has a ready answer and a quick smile.

"I don't think my temper is any shorter than Bob Dole's," he says. "In fact, he probably has a shorter temper than I do. The irascible thing is grossly overdone. The number of times I've felt cross with people who've interviewed me or who I meet is comparatively small. A lot of people are prepared to conceal their feelings. I tend not to."

"Hard-line politics? I'm a unionist, you know. Some nationalists think it's wrong for the Unionist party to be led by a unionist."

Mr. Trimble cemented his reputation last summer during the height of what is known as Northern Ireland's marching season.

For Protestant Orangemen, the season peaks in the July commemoration of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, in which the forces of William III, Prince of Orange, crushed Catholic supporters of deposed James II.

So it was last July that Mr. Trimble, then a relatively unknown member of Parliament, found himself leading a column of Orangemen in what became known as the Siege of Drumcree. For three days and two nights, the marchers were in a stand-off with local police, who blocked the traditional parade path from a Protestant church through a predominantly Catholic neighborhood.

Eventually, a token group of marchers, led by Mr. Trimble and the Rev. Ian Paisley, the long-time symbol of Protestant defiance, was allowed through and the Orangemen proclaimed victory.

"The only political risk was if I wasn't there," Mr. Trimble says.

Two months later, Mr. Trimble was the surprise choice of his party to succeed James Molyneaux as head of the Ulster Unionists. The party may have only nine members in the British Parliament, but it wields extraordinary influence, not just in Northern Ireland, but also in London, where Prime Minister John Major's Conservative government needs all the votes it can muster to stay in power.

Mr. Trimble's triumph shocked his foes in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

"We were alarmed when he was elected the leader of the official unionist party," Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin says. "Our alarm has been well justified."

Mr. Trimble doesn't sound eager to sit across the table from Sinn Fein's leadership. Asked if he would like to meet with them so he can better understand Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Mr. Trimble provides a provocative answer.

"I know the most important things about them," Mr. Trimble says. "They're all mass murderers."

"OK," he says, his voice firm and measured. "When you take a serial killer, people want to know what makes this man tick. There is a certain fascination in evil."

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