We cross the invisible border at Strabane, 12 miles from Derry, and head west for about 40 kilometres into the Gaeltacht: we’re to have lunch with an old friend, Andrew, in the Beehive Bar near the coast. He’s there in the car-park having a smoke. I manage to refuse his offer of a Sweet Afton, and as I do so he notices my copy of Dean Godson’s biography of David Trimble, Himself Alone, lying in the back seat with David McDuff’s new translation of The Idiot and some other holiday books.

When I say I want to write about Himself Alone, he exclaims: ‘A thick brick like that! I thought you were on your holyers!’ We sit and contemplate the high domed peak of Errigal, its white quartzy screes making it look snowy, beautiful, impossible. Two days later, Giti and I drive back to Errigal and climb it: a hard, steep climb over shaly paths, but it’s a warm, sunny day and we sit on the peak and look out over the country, cloud-shadows hanging still on the green bogs and fields. Below us is the isolated Altan Lough, then two other mountains, Aghla More and Muckish, the last named for the Irish for ‘pig’, muck (it looks like a pig’s back). We stare out along the coast to Tory Island, the home of the great naive painter, James Dixon. Below us Donegal is green, still, silent and peaceful.

I’m too tired that evening to open either Himself Alone or The Idiot, and in any case I want to a make a start on a new book, a collection of short essays on single poems. I wish I’d packed a copy of my discussion of Yeats’s ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, which I used to introduce a review in the LRB of Helen Vendler’s seminal study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I get up at six the next morning, and rewrite it from memory, trying to draw out the pattern of ‘o’ sounds, the plosives, the guttural ‘k’ sounds and those liquid ‘l’s, which culminate in the final line: ‘Bid me strike a match and blow.’ That afternoon I call on James – he’s my age and has just had a triple bypass operation. It’s a harrowing story, the first I’ve heard from one of our generation. ‘I’m gunked listening to you,’ I tell him, and then Ciara hands me an envelope. ‘I meant to send you it,’ she says, ‘I found it in a drawer of photographs from way back.’

Way back indeed. It’s a photograph Ciara took in the summer of 1965, when we went out in my boat – a small rowing-boat with an outboard engine – to Roaninish, an island several miles off the coast, famous for a Dutch cargo ship, the Greenhaven, being wrecked on it in a storm in 1955. During our childhood, there had also been a terrible boating tragedy near Roaninish, so going out to visit the island and the wreck seemed slightly intrepid. The photograph showed the upside-down wreck, its sides jagged, bashed and torn, its stern burst open, where the bronze propeller had been blasted out for salvage by a couple of local fishermen, and on top of the wreck a slight figure – myself aged 16 – sitting in bare feet. Looking at it, nearly forty years later, and having just heard James’s account of his brush with death, I feel shaken again: as if my fairly innocent adolescent self is sitting on some huge prehistoric monster stranded on the rocks with a pale blue sky behind it. But that’s not quite right; the wrecked ship isn’t just something used and past: it’s like looking at the disasters, mistakes and accidents that are all to come. I say thanks, wish James a good recovery, and head home. I show the family the photograph and place it on the mantelpiece. That was the summer, I recall, when I read Crime and Punishment, while fishing the Pound Lough with Patrice, my French exchange partner, who pored over thick volumes of Balzac to be ready for school in September.

I spend the evening – or part of it – with Himself Alone, and then we all head out for Iggy’s bar; there’s a lock-in after hours, and we’re not home till three that morning. The phone goes early. It’s Michael Keohane, ringing from Sligo, where he’s president of the Yeats Society. We talk, more about the Middle East than Yeats, and he invites us to the opening of the Yeats Summer School in Sligo that Sunday, and to the party afterwards in Lissadell House.

‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ is set in Lissadell House. It begins:

The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.

I want to see those great windows again; it’s 25 years since I was last there: a dingy neoclassical mansion with two elderly Gore-Booth sisters and a slightly dotty and antique brother showing visitors around.

The grounds of Lissadell when we get there are full of people; there is white wine and Guinness and dozens of oysters lying in open shells on expanses of damp seaweed. I take a drink and wander into the house, where I find the drawing-room. Helen Vendler is standing by the great windows flooded with evening light, the Atlantic beyond. We greet each other and start talking about poetry. Other friends appear, there are speeches, short ones, and an endless supply of food and drink. Fires burn in the handsome fireplaces, and talk and laughter beat at the high ceilings.

The house and gardens seem part of Yeats’s epic life and imagination, though apparently he stayed there only twice. In the poem he resurrects the country-house poem that began with Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ and ends with Pope’s ‘Epistle to Burlington’, which mocked the pretentious, soulless houses and gardens of parvenu Whig aristocrats, and effectively extinguished the genre. Yeats tries to revive it in his sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, but his theme – the decay of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy – and his too muscle-bound style always remind me of Stormont. It’s Protestant arrogance with a touch of Mussolini (or ‘Missolonghi’, as Yeats called him). But he gets it right in ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, and it was that Turgenevian poem I was celebrating.

Going back onto the lawn I bump into a friend who works in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. Knowing that he was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, I mention Trimble to him. He speaks well of him – ‘though we’ve had many fights.’ I tell him that I think the Unionists got hung up on decommissioning because they lost their way after signing the Agreement and then failing to sell it. He agrees that they failed to sell it, and says that neither government thought decommissioning would be an issue: it was the North-South bodies they worried about.

On holiday here – and it’s more than simply being on holiday – there are certain rituals that have to be followed. The boat has to be taken out of Scott’s shed in Dawros and towed to the harbour, then we have to pour the petrol and oil mixture into the Seagull engine, and go out after mackerel. This we do the next day. The engine hasn’t been used for a year – it has stood in Scott’s shed like an object in a Derek Mahon poem, oblivious to all that’s been happening in the world outside. It’s well over forty years old, so when we row out of the harbour and I jerk the cord again and again, and nothing happens, I get worried. Niall rests on the oars as I wind the cord again, and says: ‘Have you the choke on?’ At the next pull it shakes into life and we’re off towards Dawros Head, untangling the fishing line, scanning the water for mackerel shoals breaking the surface. We throw the line out and almost immediately pull six gleaming mackerel out of the sea – silver and cobalt, jerking and frantically writhing. It’s warm, the spring tide is rising, we’re going over a shoal. As we round the Head, what I think is a fulmar flies out over the water towards us. It isn’t – it’s a big white gannet, with a buff-yellow head, bluish-white bill, and white feathers and black wing tips. It joins two others and they fly high and intently along the coast. Then we reach the high black cliffs where a colony of fulmars glides; one of them follows us, flapping its wings for a spell, then gliding towards the sea, then rising again. A black cormorant skims the waves. A bee wanders past. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all year: we’re out on the Atlantic, looking out to Aranmore and Port and the horizon beyond. We get 15 mackerel, plan to camp on the island the next day and head back to the harbour and Iggy’s.

In the bar I notice a group of holidaymakers at a table. I recognise some of them, which isn’t surprising as we’ve all been coming here since at least ten years before I went out to climb the wreck on Roaninish. I smile and wave but stay where I am – they’re all Protestants from the North, people like myself who’ve loved this place since childhood and think of it as mythic, part of the dreamtime. We bump into each other now and then, but we don’t socialise, really, I tell myself, because some Northern Protestants only consort with fellow Northern Protestants, even in the Republic. Then my old schoolfriend Ernie comes in with his friend Ciaran – they wave at the others and join us. Ernie is fascinated by cars and soon shifts the talk in that direction. ‘I see you’ve given up on the Toyota,’ he says. ‘How many miles had she on the clock?’ I tell him the car was so battered and ancient I’d started to write about the embarrassment it was causing me. ‘She looked bate up all right,’ he says. Meeting him and Ciaran I know the holiday has really begun.

He invites us for a meal that evening, so the next day I’m in no fit state to get on with Himself Alone. The title puts me in mind of that famous moment in Hazlitt’s classic essay ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’, where he describes Coleridge giving the biblical text of the sermon he is about to preach in the Unitarian Chapel in Shrewsbury: ‘And he went up into the mountain to pray, Himself, Alone.’

The title also reminded me of a revealing moment in Henry McDonald’s earlier biography (a mere 340 pages, published in 2000), when a friend describes bumping into Trimble in the law courts in Belfast on the day his divorce from his first wife was granted: ‘I remember being surprised to see him on his own. He told me this was his divorce day and yet he was there alone.’ Godson doesn’t quote this anecdote, but he prints as one of his four epigraphs an exchange between Trimble and Sean Farren, a senior Irish Nationalist, at Duisburg in the late 1980s: ‘What do you want for your people?’ Farren asked. ‘To be left alone,’ Trimble replied. This statement, and the meaning of ‘Sinn Fein’, ‘Ourselves Alone’, reverberate in the title to give weight and momentum to Trimble’s courage in signing the Agreement.

The title also picks up the cover of a pamphlet, What Choice for Ulster?, which Trimble published in 1985. It was unusually glossy by the ‘samizdat-like standards’ of Ulster pamphlets, and it reproduced the famous propaganda poster, Ulster 1914, with the province personified as a young woman with long, flowing hair, defiantly carrying a rifle against a Union Jack, and proclaiming: ‘Deserted! Well – I Can Stand Alone.’

Part of Godson’s theme is Unionist or Protestant solitariness, their distrust of the English, and commitment to the two-nations doctrine, which isn’t much discussed nowadays but shaped Trimble’s early thinking. He believed that Republicans could be integrated into existing (but reformed) state structures because the traditional ideology that drove them was dead or dying – the policy was called ‘structural Unionism’. But he was also worried by the increasing difficulty of persuading pro-Union electors to vote, especially in middle-class areas like North Down. As the Protestant middle classes began to withdraw from Unionist politics, the quality of the candidates sank and the party stagnated. Many Protestants were leaving the province to go to university in Britain, and often they did not return.

Trimble’s political career began with the prorogation of Stormont by Edward Heath on 24 March 1972 – ‘I am,’ he says, ‘the product of the destruction of Stormont’ – but it was fuelled by grief and anger along the way. Grief especially at the murder by the IRA of his close friend and colleague in the Queen’s University law faculty, Edgar Graham, in 1983. (When the murder was announced over the tannoy in the Queen’s student union, Republican students cheered.) For those who remember the 1970s and 1980s Godson’s detailed account brings back a number of horrible events – the shock not only of Edgar Graham’s murder, for example, but that of Eva Martin, ten years earlier, a soldier in the UDR and a schoolteaching colleague of Giti’s. Martin was murdered by Sean O’Callaghan, who later defected from the IRA and on his release from jail in 1996 was to become a close adviser to Trimble. These were dark days: I hear their ‘low tattoo’ and remember the casualties every time I read and teach Seamus Heaney’s ‘Broagh’, written in the early 1970s.

When the new Northern Ireland Assembly rejected a motion denouncing power-sharing by 44 votes to 28, on 14 May 1974, the Ulster Workers’ Council announced that the Loyalists would reduce electricity output. The next day they called a general strike, and roadblocks appeared everywhere. Trimble played a significant role in the organisation of the strike, and appears to have enjoyed the ‘almost blitz spirit’ of this highly unconstitutional action. Despite Harold Wilson’s resentment of the strikers, neither the Northern Ireland Office nor the army wanted to confront them: why risk bloodshed for the sake of a doomed executive? Faced with a complete cessation of electricity supplies, more unburied dead and untreated sewage, the prime minister, Brian Faulkner, resigned with the executive on 28 May 1974.

Trimble rose in the Unionist Party, and in 1990 was elected to the House of Commons. He was pro-Europe and was less committed to capital punishment than most Unionist MPs. Though he was the party’s youngest and most junior MP, he was already acquiring respect both as its most intellectual member and as a potential counterweight to Ian Paisley, but it was Paisley who helped him win the Unionist leadership, when the two men clasped hands at chest level as they took the salute of the admiring throng, after the Orange Order defied a police ban and marched down the Garvaghy Road on 11 July 1995.

Huge numbers of Orangemen had turned up for the occasion. It was an impressive display of Protestant culture (some of the bands had massive 17th-century Lambeg drums, three foot in diameter and weighing 40 pounds – one drum was called ‘Earl Kitchener the Avenger’) which gave Trimble confidence in his negotiations with the RUC. Both he and the district master of the Portadown Orange Lodge addressed the crowd, and though an RUC officer described Trimble as ‘grossly irresponsible’, the district master’s remarks were of greater significance. ‘Be it days, hours or weeks, we will stay until we walk our traditional route,’ he had told the crowd.

At this point Godson, who was until recently chief leader writer for the Daily Telegraph, articulates the position that joins the British right to the Unionists: ‘It was now to be a fight to the finish to preserve Ulster-British culture. Everything, they felt, had been taken away from them: their parliament, their locally controlled security forces; the right to display pictures of the sovereign; the right to fly Union flags and to wear Glasgow Rangers T-shirts in the workplace; and much else besides.’ It was a highly emotional moment: men wept as eight hundred or so Orangemen marched down the Garvaghy hill, past the residents of the Garvaghy Road, who at a given signal removed themselves from the thoroughfare. The RUC had had to decide whether more chaos would result from maintaining the ban than from allowing the Orangemen to march. Some Catholics I know in the area felt the authorities made the right decision: the province was on the brink of disaster.

The first ‘siege of Drumcree’ confirmed the British government’s suspicion that none of the Unionists could be trusted. Even now, Godson says, Patrick Mayhew, Northern Ireland secretary at the time, describes Trimble’s performance at Drumcree as ‘undoubtedly triumphalist’. He aroused great hostility in nationalist Ireland and among what Godson calls ‘mainland progressive opinion’, which helped him when James Molyneaux, the elderly, gloomy and ineffective leader of the Unionist Party, resigned at the end of the following month. Trimble’s campaign to succeed Molyneaux was well planned and, by Unionist standards, sophisticated: at the time, it looked as though the Unionists had elected a hardliner, but he was to prove the most gifted leader since his hero, Sir James Craig, who in effect founded the state of Northern Ireland with Lord Carson, and became its first prime minister.

After the Good Friday Agreement, a paranoid revisionist view set in among certain Unionists, who came to believe that the British state, in particular elements of the intelligence services, wanted to give Trimble such a victory at Drumcree in order to build him up as an ostensibly hardline Unionist – which would give him the credibility to effect a compromise with Irish nationalism. The Irish Times meanwhile criticised Trimble for his ‘quick temper’ and ‘truculent manner’ which, the paper believed, would align the Unionist Party more closely with the DUP. Worse, they said, he clearly regarded compromise as surrender, which boded ill for the all-party talks. The situation wasn’t simple. Trimble was keen to attract Catholics into the Unionist Party, but for that to happen breaking the party’s link with the Orange Order was necessary, and he failed to do the preparatory work which would have been required to bring this about.

Then came the second battle of Drumcree. In July 1996, the RUC, at the last minute, again rerouted the Boyne anniversary Orange walk so it would not go down the Garvaghy Road. Ten thousand Orangemen turned up in protest. The RUC was starting to feel stretched: the crowd carried pigs’ heads on stakes, and fired ballbearings from catapults. A huge mechanical digger, nicknamed the ‘police buster’, was positioned at the top of the hill at Drumcree. Trimble went to Drumcree and clambered onto it. There the notorious Loyalist terrorist Billy Wright sat in a deckchair sunning himself. ‘What on earth do you think you are doing?’ Trimble asked the Loyalists in boiler suits manning the digger. They responded angrily, and one denounced him as an MI5 agent. He was rescued by some Orangemen, and was lucky not to be murdered. He met with Wright once more in an attempt to negotiate a compromise.

The authorities feared that 60,000 loyalists would converge on Drumcree, and that the digger and slurry tankers filled with petrol would be used against the RUC. According to Patrick Mayhew, ‘respectable people were turning out in masks who were more normally seen at the golf club.’ The chief constable of the RUC asked the General Officer Commanding: ‘Can you hold the line if we fail?’ ‘Yes,’ the GOC replied, ‘provided I can use ball’ – live ammunition. ‘In the light of that,’ the chief constable replied, ‘the position is untenable.’ But had the march not gone down the Garvaghy Road, Trimble would have been destroyed, and with him any prospect of an inclusive settlement. The march was allowed down its traditional route and nationalist Ireland was furious.

Trimble believes that Drumcree II erased the anger some Unionists had felt towards him for his role in the appointment of the US senator George Mitchell as chairman of the Good Friday Agreement talks. Trimble knew he would have to accept Mitchell, but he played along with Paisley and Robert McCartney, the maverick integrationist Unionist, to use their objections to Mitchell as a bargaining chip when it came to the rules and procedures of the talks. When Mitchell took the chair – Godson describes well the hardline Unionists’ rage – a long-time Irish goal was reached: the Ulster conflict had been internationalised. British ministers were delighted that Trimble had faced down tremendous pressures within his own party and from the masked men from the golf clubs.

Godson points to the difference between Blair’s approach to Northern Ireland and Kevin McNamara’s. McNamara is Old Labour, in some ways an Irish nationalist sympathiser, who was the Labour spokesman on Northern Ireland until Blair sacked him. Perhaps controversially, Godson says that the ties McNamara and Clare Short had to their Irish backgrounds did not touch Blair, who was ‘little affected’ by his Ulster Protestant ancestry (his mother, a Corscadden, came from Donegal Protestant stock; they had lived in Ballyshannon for many generations). It could be argued that Blair’s continual insistence that he is right because he knows he is trustworthy and straight-talking – the narcissistic void at the heart of his political personality – is recognisably Ulster Protestant, as anyone who has studied its distinctive cultural form, the sermon, will realise. He deserves praise, though, for the enormous attention he devoted to Northern Ireland (a senior Cabinet Office civil servant said that Blair spent about 40 per cent of his time on the province, unthinkable for Callaghan or Thatcher).

Godson goes on to detail all that happened in the Northern Assembly, and is interesting about the mistakes Trimble’s Unionist Party made in their choice of cabinet posts. Martin McGuinness became minister of education, and began the abolition of the notorious eleven-plus examination, or ‘qually’ as it was called by those of us who took the wretched exam. His budget was £1.243 billion. Sinn Fein’s Bairbre De Brun took health, with a £2.029 billion budget. Michael McGimpsey, a subtle and liberal Unionist, took Culture, Arts and Leisure, with its tiny allocation of £64 million and staff of 350. He chose this post because he wanted to ‘defend’ Northern Ireland’s interests – i.e. Unionist interests – in the face of demands from the cross-border language body. The cabinet allocations left Sinn Fein in charge of 60 per cent of the discretionary budget – a ‘debacle’, Godson calls it, which came about because Trimble didn’t liaise with Paisley and the DUP.

Godson says, correctly, that Trimble became the most respected and prestigious figure ‘thrown up’ by the Unionist movement since the foundation of Northern Ireland. In becoming that figure, he also brought out the essential weakness of official Unionism, its demoralised passivity, its sentimental traditionalism, its dearth of ideas, its hangdog lack of creative energy. Trimble’s Unionist Party lost to the DUP in the last election, and the DUP then became locked in complex secret negotiations with Sinn Fein to reinstate the Assembly (this is confirmed by another friend from the Department of Foreign Affairs I bump into at the harbour here).

Both parties are working hard to achieve this: the newspapers report a speech by Gerry Adams saying that the IRA needs to be wound up as a paramilitary force in order to stop the Unionists using its existence as an excuse for not sharing power with Sinn Fein. And among growing signs that positions may be shifting on both sides, Jeffrey Donaldson, who broke with Trimble over the Agreement, ignored police security advice to join a debate in Republican West Belfast. He said that the Unionist community would prefer the IRA to destroy the rest of its arsenal in a single act, but he could live with it being done over a longer period if it was ‘within a defined timescale’. This, I reflect, is the best holiday reading, and it flows from the risks Trimble took in signing the Agreement. He then failed to sell it, just as he failed to modernise his party and failed to create a real sense of civil consensus, but this was due to the inadequacy of his party, starved of intelligent support and with a large number of elderly, very reactionary MPs. Attention has now shifted to the DUP. On 16 August the Irish Times carries a statesmanlike article by the party’s deputy leader, Peter Robinson, who concludes:

If we achieve completion on the key issues of decommissioning, ending criminal and paramilitary activity, and institutions are agreed that are capable of commanding Unionist as well as Nationalist support, the DUP will enthusiastically and robustly commend such an agreement to the wider Unionist community.

This clearly glances at Trimble’s failure to promote the Agreement, and, perhaps sentimentally, I recognise something of the liberal civic values of Annadale, the school Robinson and I attended in the 1960s (we were in the same year). But this doesn’t last – a fortnight later on the boat back to Liverpool I meet a friend from the same year who works in Brussels for the Irish government. ‘The talks at Leeds Castle!’ he says: ‘Don’t expect anything. The DUP aren’t going to do a deal – not before the next Westminster general election. Their electorate is totally unprepared – they don’t know they’re on the road to Damascus. They’re out on their own, in a corner, in the last ditch.’

In the event he wasn’t wrong.

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