David Trimble becomes the first Ulster Unionist leader to meet a Pope when his historic meeting with John Paul II takes place in Rome on April 21, 1999. The meeting is widely welcomed as a sign that old prejudices are ending but Trimble is hotly criticised by both Protestants and Catholics in his Upper Bann constituency.
The First Minister is one of 54 Nobel Peace Prize laureates who meets Pope John Paul II briefly at the Vatican, as part of a two-day trip organised by former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Nobel Prize winners meet the Pope as a group and are then introduced and shake hands individually. There is a group photograph but no filming of the event. Careful stage-management ensures there are no public photographs of the two men close together.
A spokesman for Trimble says the UUP leader told the Pope he hopes this will be the year when peace will be secured in Northern Ireland. The Pope recalls his visit to Ireland and says murder cannot be condoned or called by another name.
Although the meeting is welcomed on both sides of the North divide, it does little to enhance Trimble’s standing in Upper Bann, particularly in troubled Portadown. In Portadown’s loyalist estates, there is open hostility toward Trimble. Many residents accusing their MP of “putting his personal status above the interests of his constituents.” The response is typified by one angry woman who says, “The loyalist people of this town and Drumcree, put David Trimble into office. Now he has turned his back on us. That’s a fatal mistake, this town and Drumcree will now destroy Trimble.”
“It’s unbelievable that this meeting is actually taking place,” says Orangeman Ivor Young. “It totally contradicts the oath that David Trimble took when he joined the Orange Order. We all knew Trimble was a traitor, this latest escapade puts the final nail in his political coffin here in Upper Bann. There is no way that he will ever be elected here again.”
Trimble also comes in for further criticism from Portadown Orange District, whose Drumcree protest has continued for the past 288 days. David Jones, the District’s press officer says that the people of Portadown once again see their local MP on “a world stage,” instead of being involved locally. “There are a lot of people around Portadown who aren’t very impressed that David Trimble has gone off to meet the Pope and hasn’t got more involved in trying to get the situation here solved,” says Jones.
On Portadown’s Garvaghy Road, Catholics are also critical of Trimble’s visit to Rome. “It’s amazing how he can travel to Rome to meet and talk to strangers,” says one nationalist resident, “yet he can’t be bothered to travel less than 30 miles to meet us, to talk about the serious issues that confront this community. After all we are as much his constituents as are the loyalists in this town.”
The meeting is the first time that the First Minister of Northern Ireland or the head of the Ulster Unionist Party has met the Pope in Rome. It also represents a rare appearance by an Orangeman at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. Trimble and his entourage meet the Pope in the sumptuous surroundings of the Consistory Hall, the same room where the Cardinals of the Church gather to advise the Pope.
Earlier in the morning Trimble says in an interview with the Vatican radio that besides giving an update on developments in Northern Ireland, he wishes to “express to his Holiness the Pope that he and the Church will do what it can to persuade the paramilitaries to commit themselves irrevocably to peaceful means.”
Other Nobel prize winners who meet the Pope include peace activist Betty Williams, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former South African leader F. W. de Klerk, Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, British scientist Joseph Rotblat, and former Israeli leader Shimon Peres.
(From: “Anger erupts at home as Trimble meets Pope” by Chris Anderson, Independent.ie (www.independent.ie), April 23, 1999)