I’m officially away this week and next but I think this analysis piece from Lee Reynolds on Trimble’s legacy is worth sharing on the fly, in particular this part…
“In the negotiations, his approach was shaped by Sunningdale. It was the Council of Ireland that had broken it with Unionist opinion. He knew what shouldn’t be in it and secured it. This focus on past problems perhaps distracted from future ones. It lacked much of what it needed. Poor or absent answers on paramilitarism, policing, the past, power-sharing and cultural identity, individually and collectively dogged implementation.
Too often, Trimble was the academic who believed that once the intellectual case had been won consequences naturally followed, and the lawyer who saw text as establishing precedent with a singular answer. Deals in Northern Ireland are negotiated before, during and after the deal. It was in the after that Sinn Fein excelled.
The nature of the Belfast Agreement suited this Sinn Fein strength. There are two types of peace agreement — instrumental and constitutive. Instrumental or partial deals resolve a number of issues with the expectation the progress and momentum they start will help resolve others. A constitutive deal is a “full” agreement. The former easier to achieve but harder to implement — the latter harder to achieve but simpler to deliver.
Trimble considered the principle of consent his greater achievement, though this is deeply contestable. Yet he himself learned that the notional acceptance of the principle by nationalism was solely that. It does not extend to accepting that it has any practicable effect — whether simple everyday Britishness within Northern Ireland or accepting national referendum results.
His decision to make the deal faced opposition from traditionalists and modernisers. Traditionalists didn’t like the idea of any deal while modernisers disagreed with the deal he had made. Trimble treated them as one and the same, limiting his future options and impairing his ability to construct an effective team.
He was clearly uncomfortable with the vapid “Yes’ referendum campaign. It looked likely that the unofficial test of a majority of both communities would not be met with Unionists rejecting it. A tactic to overcome this was the misselling of the Belfast Agreement to Unionists as a full not partial deal. A settlement not a process — just one bitter pill to be swallowed for peace.
Following worrying private polling, Blair swooped in with 48 hours to go to save the floundering campaign. He announced his five handwritten pledges all centred on floating Unionist voter concerns. It worked. The Unionist pendulum swung 55 v 45 in favour, but it only worked in the short-term. Blair’s pledges evaporated. One bitter pill followed another. Unionist swing voters would feel ever more conned. “This isn’t what I voted for” was the common refrain.”
It goes some way to explain the sceptical detachment many unionists (and perhaps some moderate nationalists) still feel towards the so called Good Friday Agreement).
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty