It is 10 years since leaders of Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic communities signed up to the Good Friday Peace Agreement, ending decades of violence and laying the foundations for a poltical settlement. David Trimble was the first First Minister of the power-sharing government established by the Agreement. He resigned in 2001 over the disarmament issue and the peace process was stalled for several years before a final accord was reached. The Nobel Peace Prize winner talked to EuroNews about how the agreement was brokered and reflects on possible lessons for other regions of conflict.
EuroNews: On April 10 1998, the Good Friday Agreement came into place, what do you remember about that day?
David Trimble: Well, it was a long day because as a party we had a difficult decision to make. Any agreement covering constitutional issues, arrangements for the future governance of Northern Ireland is a complicated matter and it had involved some compromises. We had a negotiation going on for a long time but it was really the last week that was crucial.
EN: You and the then leader of the SDLP (moderate Irish nationalist), John Hume, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the efforts you made in delivering this peace agreement. But at the same time you were sidelined by the hardliners.
DT: The agreement in itself was not a final stage. Implementing the agreement also posed considerable difficulties. The principal difficulty we had was with those political parties with paramilitary organisations related to them. In fact the disarmament of the main paramilitary organisation, the largest paramilitary organisation took nine years, and over the course of that nine years, because it took so long, confidence in the agreement among the unionist electorate dropped significantly during that period because of that delay. And that led to the replacement of my own party by Dr Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and during the same period, for different reasons, we saw John Hume’s party being eclipsed by the political party related to that paramilitary organisation, Sinn Fein.
EN: You were the first First Minister of the power-sharing government, but you resigned soon afterwards. Do you have any regrets?
DT: I wouldn’t do things differently because the agreement was important. The core issue was the ending of violence and for the parties to put aside completely violence and terrorism as a means of advancing their objectives. The difficulty was a short term difficulty with regard to the political parties were going to operate by exclusively peaceful and democratic means. And the republican organisation, which involves Sinn Fein and the IRA as it’s paramilitary wing, that party was very slow about making a full commitment to peaceful and democratic means. Now they have done so, they have disarmed.
EN: Northern Ireland is considered a model of conflict resolution. When we think about Spain for example, do you think a political solution can be found?
DT: Every situation has its own unique characteristics. I think it’s a mistake to look for example at Northern Ireland and say ‘they did this in Northern Ireland therefore you should do that in Spain’. In fact, I wouldn’t criticise the Spanish government and indeed the devolution (of power) to the Basque country is so comprehensive that one’s left wondering why on earth terrorism continues. I don’t see what else ETA is fighting for. I do not understand what it is ETA seeks to achieve because I don’t think it is feasible to think of it being completely independent of the context in which it exists.
EN: Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, played a really important role, alongside other people of course, in the peace in Northern Ireland. At the moment he is engaged in other conflict areas, specifically the Middle East. Do you think his experience could be an asset there?
DT: Here in Northern Ireland we had reached a situation where the parties were prepared for a negotiation and were prepared for compromise. If you come to look at the situation in the Middle East, there’s a very clear distinction there in that we have some parties whose objective it is to end the existence of Israel and that is a quite different situation. I think one has got to look at the Middle East in quite different terms. Consequently,one has to look at that on its own terms and it strikes me as a much more difficult situation, much more difficult.
EN: Lets go back to Ireland, Ireland and Europe, do you think the European Union has done enough, should it be more engaged?
DT: The main effect of the European Union is not something the European Union did as an institution. The main effect was its existence and by virtue of the changes that the European Union symbolises the whole idea of nationality in western Europe is quite different to what it was a generation ago. That changed the context within which we were looking at the problem. There are some legacy issues. There are legacy issues with regard to victims — I mean legacies of the Troubles, the years of terrorism – there are problems relating to victims, there are problems relating to community relations, which will take time to resolve and it will be quite some time before we get rid of all the antagonism and tensions that exist between the communities here in Northern Ireland. The constitutional instability and the violence we had have finished. I think those matters have ended and I don’t think they are ever coming back.
EN: Republicans and Unionists are still divided on one key issue, the possible reunification with the Republic. Do you envisage that happening one day or is that just of the question.
DT: I don’t think personally that will ever happen, but I don’t think in a few years it’s going to matter. Because the other thing that’s happened over the course of the past ten years is that there’s now a much closer relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, so I don’t see this as being a problem for the future at all.
EN: So ‘the hand of history’ as Tony Blair put it, has turned the page for Northern Ireland.
DT: Yes, we have turned the corner.