Trimble-Mallon Revisited

Posted By: October 14, 2013

Tom Kelly reflects on the Trimble-Mallon era and compares it to the present one in Northern Ireland.


Tom Kelly. Irish News ( Belfast). Monday, October 14. 2013
LISTENING to Seamus Mallon on RTE’s Marian Finucane Show was a welcome blast from the past. Despite being 77, the instantly recognisable and gravelly, smoke-honed voice is still capable of the carefully crafted barbed comment; still capable of landing a verbal blow on his intended targets and still capable of that wry humour that made Mallon a people’s politician and a journalist’s dream.

Both David Trimble and Mallon re-emerged last week to receive honorary doctorates from Dublin City University.

The former first and deputy first ministers couldn’t help but have a go at the incumbents.

Lord Trimble said quite philosophically that their success was that they existed – not that they achieved anything. The waspish Mallon went further when he claimed they had walked away from every difficult issue they faced, from education to the Maze.

In his valedictory, Mallon also paid tribute to the personal bravery of David and Daphne Trimble.

Like him, I personally witnessed how they were cruelly harried and spat upon as they emerged from an electoral count in Banbridge. Trimble’s tormentors, mainly from the DUP, were nothing more than corner boys and thugs fueled by an insatiable hatred of progress.

Their spawn has recently resurrected, spewing similar hatred onto the streets over flags and parades.

The youthful finance minister and rising son of Saintfield, Simon Hamilton, retorted to Mallon and Trimble’s comments by saying they must be suffering from political amnesia.

Hamilton is a mere 36 and, as such, is untainted by much of the street agitation and rabble rousing more favoured by the elders of his party.

His comments cannot be taken too seriously as he was not that long out of short trousers when people like Mallon

and Trimble were doing the heavy lifting for nationalism and unionism respectively. Hamilton seems to have forgotten that it was Trimble, the plumber of the Good Friday Agreement, who created the pipes for its framework, that ultimately allowed the DUP to do so many u-turns on their stated position with Sinn Fein.

It’s true that the relationship between Mallon and Trimble was prickly. After all they were both ‘thran’ sons of Ulster. Their era was politically embryonic and fraught with the new and unexplored territory of power-sharing.

They could also be defensive and suspicious. Not so surprising given they were dealing with two governments who were playing footsie with the DUP and Sinn Fein behind their backs.

Duplicitous wouldn’t even go halfway to describing the ethics of Dublin and London at that time.

For all that, Trimble and Mallon were a partnership of equals. Mallon certainly never acted like a consort to Trimble, nor did Trimble ever disparagingly refer to his partner as his deputy.

In fairness, though, the Robinson/ McGuinness relationship is much more on an equal par than Paisley/McGuinness.

The Trimble-Mallon era was squandered by the DUP’s half-in/half-out position on the executive, Sinn Fein’s bad faith over decommissioning and an imploding Ulster Unionist party.

It also suffered by Mallon not succeeding to the leadership of the SDLP when he became deputy first minister.

In retrospect the SDLP, the nationalist community and indeed wider society were entitled to the benefits of Mallon’s electoral nous and political eloquence. However, political ‘ifs and ands’ are sauces only for the policy nerds, coffee house politicos and wishful commentators.

No matter how many joint photo-calls the executive has and no matter how many times FM and DFM try to reassure that their marriage is safe, this is a dysfunctional partnership.

No wedding album ever held together a bad marriage. Given some recent decisions and solo runs certain ministers could only be described as politically and ideologically feral.

In policy terms over the Maze, education and Irish language the DUP has checkmated Sinn Fein over and over again.

The Sinn Fein response has not been clever as it seeks to provoke and annoy moderate unionism by lionising murderous terrorists responsible for some of the worst excesses of the Troubles.

During the weekend interview Mallon reflected on things that perhaps could have been done better or maybe not done at all.

History will prove that he has little reason to be over introspective. Others in the SDLP have much more reason for mature reflection.

Trimble and Mallon did more than just sow the seeds for peace. They shone light into dark corners and when heavy lifting was needed they were not found wanting.

They have more than earned the right to make comment on their successors.