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1997 snapshot of NI leaders described ‘loose cannon’ and a man of ‘dark moods’

SDLP leader John Hume speaks to the media after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble for their part in brokering the historic Northern Ireland peace agreement (PA)
SDLP leader John Hume speaks to the media after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble for their part in brokering the historic Northern Ireland peace agreement (PA)

A snapshot assessment of Northern Ireland politician’s personalities, habits and attitudes was compiled ahead of Labour’s Westminster general election win in 1997.

The briefing mostly focuses on unionist politicians and does not include any Sinn Fein representatives, according to State documents released this year to the Irish National Archives.

Among the descriptions prepared in a document called First Day Briefing Material written by the UK government’s Northern Ireland Office was a description of UUP leader David Trimble’s “quick and disciplined mind” and hints of the tense relationship between the SDLP leadership of John Hume and Seamus Mallon.

Tony Blair with David Trimble and John Hume on the last day of campaigning for a Yes vote in the Northern Ireland Referendum
Tony Blair with David Trimble and John Hume on the last day of campaigning for a Yes vote in the Northern Ireland Referendum (PA)

Mr Trimble is described as “articulate, business-like and intelligent” in the document, but “an instinctive hard-liner” who has “formidable political and presentational talents”.

It stated that although he showed “political and personal courage” at the start of the talks, Mr Trimble has “not been able to provide strong and coherent leadership”.

Although he has a “quick and disciplined mind”, and is a “formidable TV debater and polemicist”, he can be “arrogant and abrasive”.

David Trimble , his deputy John Taylor and Ken Maginnis speak to the media outside Downing Street following talks with Tony Blair in 1997
David Trimble, his deputy John Taylor and Ken Maginnis speak to the media outside Downing Street following talks with Tony Blair in 1997 (PA)

Following on from a note in the document that states there is no “obvious contender for his crown”, Mr Trimble’s deputy leader at the time, John Taylor, is described as “not well-liked”.

“A complex figure, found by many to be arrogant and blustering and always seeming to be conscious of the fact that his unrivalled experience (and undoubted intelligence) gave him a special place in the party hierarchy.”

Another senior UUP figure, Ken Maginnis, is “large, friendly, open and garrulous”.

The briefing said that Mr Maginnis was also “in many ways the most attractive (in personal terms) of the UUP upper echelon”.

“Something of a loose cannon in party terms, he has a reputation for speaking first and thinking later. A rambling and unfocussed speaker.”

Northern Ireland secretary John Reid (centre) buys John Hume and Seamus Mallon a farewell drink, before Hume’s last speech as SDLP party leader in 2001
Northern Ireland secretary John Reid (centre) buys John Hume and Seamus Mallon a farewell drink, before Hume’s last speech as SDLP party leader in 2001 (PA)

SDLP leader Mr Hume is described as “a complex character, capable of dark moods and depression when he feels things are not going right”.

“He is often worried about his health.”

His deputy, Mr Mallon, is described as “very charming”, but “vigilant in spotting lapses of behaviour by the security forces and rigorous in his criticism of aspects of security policy which he considers counter-productive”.

It added: “But he is a fair critic and does not go out of his way to be unnecessarily difficult.”

The document also states that Mr Mallon’s relations with Hume “are not always the best”.

The material can be viewed in the National Archives in file 2022/45/425