The Work of Giants Crumbles

David Trimble leaves a tremendous legacy, but politics passed him by.

David Trimble sits on a sofa across from Bill Clinton
Robert McNeely / White House / Getty

Barely a month ago, Northern Ireland’s former first minister David Trimble and his old partner in peace, the Republic of Ireland’s Bertie Ahern, were sitting together in Belfast reminiscing about what they had built. With John Hume’s death in 2020, Trimble and Ahern were among the last of the island’s old giants. And now Trimble has gone too.

Trimble, the joint architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Hume for their efforts, died of cancer yesterday aged 77. With his passing, he leaves the inescapable sense of time escaping our grip, of an age ending and a generation departing, leaving us to stare disconsolately at what we have left in their place.

“Wondrous is this foundation,” begins the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Ruin,” marveling at the remains of the old Roman world whose debris was found strewn across the land. “The fates have broken and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.” This is how it can feel looking at the minnows in Belfast, Dublin, and London today as they walk around the ruins built by Trimble, Ahern, Hume, and the rest.

In those verses, too, lie the lessons from Trimble’s life. He exhibited the importance of stature, vision, and principled commitment to a bigger cause. With this, Trimble built something profound and lasting, which changed Northern Ireland for the better. The other lesson, though, is the danger in staring too long at the work of giants. In doing so, we can become lost in their age, dwelling in their achievements, ones that often reflect the problems of their time, not ours. As Trimble himself would show, it is possible for us to become too struck by the beauty of big legacies, unable to move on.

Without question, Trimble was a giant, the kind of driven, cultured, and intellectually rigorous politician we don’t seem to see very often at the moment. Like everyone, he was deeply flawed, as well as being severely limited as a politician, yet it is also inescapably true that he was brave and insightful during some of Northern Ireland’s darkest days—and ultimately profound. “Somewhere along the road,” his friend and adviser during the Good Friday negotiations, Paul Bew, told me, “he concluded, like Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, Sir James Craig: What are we going to do, fight these people forever? And that was it, that was David.” Upon this sentiment the new Northern Ireland was built, one that remains in the United Kingdom a quarter of a century later, having defeated and disarmed the Irish Republican Army. Whatever his flaws, and the flaws of his agreement, that is some legacy.

Trimble was a conservative unionist who believed in Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, bitterly opposing earlier attempts to impose power-sharing in the 1970s. He suffered badly in the years following the agreement, losing power and influence as his fellow unionists in Northern Ireland reacted with legitimate fury to his failure to stop the cynical gangsterism of Sinn Féin, as the IRA dragged its feet getting rid of its weapons.

In later life, Trimble supported Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and was furious with those who, as he saw it, used his great constitutional achievement to impose a new settlement on Northern Ireland that he believed undermined his greatest achievement. By this time, however, politics seemed to have moved on. He was no longer seen as the giant of old, his views often dismissed as those from another age, an inconvenience for those who followed who claimed to worship his creation. Even those who admire him most share a sense that, so monumental was his achievement in 1998, it was hard for him to keep building thereafter.

“He created this beautiful vase,” as Bew put it. “And he kept wanting to look at it.”

We shouldn’t be blind to the enormous benefits of this approach. His fixation on the vase, so to speak, meant that Trimble remained focused on the big picture even during the most difficult times: as unionist anger rose in the years after the Good Friday Agreement’s signing, as support for his moderate Ulster Unionist Party drained away to more hard-line unionist groups. His attitude, according to those I spoke with, was often, Don’t they see they’ve won the big things?

And he was mostly right. Though unionists had made painful compromises, they also had won the big thing. The IRA had lost its war. The people of Northern Ireland would decide whether they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom with Great Britain. Yet “winning” the argument is only half the battle—the politics never stops. As one unionist critic of Trimble’s told me: “You negotiate before, during, and after a deal.” After the deal, he lost and the hard-liners won.

Today, we obsess about the Good Friday Agreement both for good and for ill, the answer to all questions in Northern Ireland, as if it is a static, unchanging place. As Trimble himself discovered, voters themselves quickly move on. And so they should. Northern Ireland is a different place than the one Trimble grew up in. A third force has emerged that is rightly challenging the sectarianism baked into Trimble and Hume’s agreement, in which power is shared between unionists and nationalists, often unfairly locking out those who sit as “nonaligned.” Today, once again, Northern Ireland is back in crisis, stuck with an insoluble constitutional dilemma caused by Brexit in which everyone claims the Good Friday Agreement as proof of the righteousness of their side.

Ultimately, Northern Ireland has a new problem to solve, requiring new solutions and new giants to step forward—none of whom seem to exist.

Bew was with Trimble and Ahern at that meeting a month ago, for the unveiling of a portrait of Trimble, and told me of the sense of loss he felt. “Where are the politicians who realize, like David, that we’re going to have to split this in the middle again somehow?” he said.

They’re not there. Politics moves on. And so the work of giants crumbles.