David Trimble is a great man. A giant of Northern Irish politics. People my age stand on the shoulders of the peace process himself and John Hume built for us and future generations. In fact, both men’s efforts were recognised with a “Nobel Peace Prize” in 1998 following the Good Friday Agreement, a true testament to what they achieved. But there is little doubt that Trimble could be a very difficult man. Of course, he wasn’t helped by the Leo Varadkar bashing Lord John Kilclooney, nor the homosexual slurring Ken Maginnis at the time of the peace process. Indeed, the two senior UUP members proved to be a constant thorn in their leader’s side. But Trimble himself could find it very difficult to compromise too. Mid 50’s at the time, he built a reputation for being a fidgety, red faced negotiator who could boil over very quickly, especially when he felt that he wasn’t informed first about any developments. Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and Bertie Ahern found the UUP hard to deal with. There would be in house disagreements mid negotiation and often fly off the handle if the olive branch to nationalism was viewed to be reaching too far. But all of these hours spent in windowless rooms fuelled by coffee, silent farts and takeaway food finally led to NI’s greatest achievement – the GFA, and for that, we will be forever grateful to Trimble and the UUP.
But their purpose had been served. Along with the SDLP, the “moderate Unionists” were sent into the abyss by the electorate like Ovid. Nationalists and Unionists migrated to the extremes of green and orange, the fertile soils of NI liberalism waterlogged by the polarities. But the UUP failed to change and failed to adapt. This is characterised by the leaders they have had since David Trimble in that all of them are like David Trimble. Reg Empey, mid 50’s, party grandee. Tom Elliot, 46, farmer, politics based on defensive strategy. Mike Nesbitt, mid 50’s, middle class, remembered for a Tory pact. Robin Swann, 45, former chief whip, farmer, stood unopposed. Steve Aiken, mid 50’s, royal navy, politics of defense. All men. All middle aged. All lacking a definitive vision the electorate can cling to.
If you think I’m being harsh, have a look around at the major parties in the North of Ireland and how they have evolved. The two largest parties had the same leaders for years in Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, both replaced them with young women in the shape of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill. Alliance had a safe pair of hands with David Ford before pushing progression under Naomi Long. Even the SDLP managed to install Margaret Ritchie for a while and have now got a young MP as their leader in the shape of Colum Eastwood. The UUP have failed to offer any new, exciting leader which has culminated in a leader who talks of his own personal achievements more than UUP policy. A “no” man, who would rather point out the wrongdoings and failures of others before offering any iota of a vision.
Perhaps Mike Nesbitt offered a glimpse of what progression looked like. The affable, former news reader had a chance to engage with young people but sold out for a Tory pact that hamstrung him in his leadership. Since then we have seen two former chief whips rise to the top of the UUP with “anti” politics. It is no wonder the Alliance party has grown. Moderate unionists and progressives can identify with the young, vibrant party and have made plenty of gains. They are giving their supporters something to be excited about. The same cannot be said for the UUP. The leaders that we have seen in the past two decades are just the tip of iceberg. They made history in the past, but it is in the past that they remain, watching others modernise past them whilst they are bed bound, stricken with a bad dose of Trimble-itis.