chance meeting | 

Journalist Hugh Jordan reflects on airplane meeting with the late David Trimble

‘Back on board the tiny aircraft - which was less than full - David Trimble opted to sit beside us and our amiable conversation continued much as it did before’

Former Northern Ireland First Minister and Ulster Unionist Party (UUO) leader David Trimble© PA

Sunday World

I first shook hands with David Trimble in the coffee dock at Isle of Man Airport.

We were both bound for the English seaside resort of Blackpool, where the British Labour Party Conference was in full swing.

It was September 30 1996 and the Ulster Unionist Party politician had recently been elected party leader.

Trimble’s presence at a conference, made up largely of socialists and trade unionists, was a rare one for a unionist leader.

In fact, the former Queen’s University law lecturer was the first unionist to attend such an event.

We had been passengers on a small plane which had departed the then Belfast Harbour Airport 20 minutes before. It had been diverted to the Isle of Man because the airport at Blackpool was fog bound.

Trimble was wearing his trade mark grey suit combined with a smart red tie.

I inquired if his neck attire was an indication of a recent conversion to Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ brand of New Labour politics. Trimble laughed and not for the first time that day.

I was travelling with my friend and colleague Henry McDonald, who at that time reported for The Observer.

The chat was dominated largely about the chances of the then new Labour leader Tony Blair, becoming British Prime Minister.

After a while we received the news we had all been hoping for. The fog clinging to Blackpool Tower had cleared and we were free to continue with our onward journey.

Back on board the tiny aircraft - which was less than full - David Trimble opted to sit beside us and our amiable conversation continued much as it did before.

David told us that as a small boy he had lived in Londonderry - as he called it – for a while.

His Civil Servant dad worked in the local Broo and the family lived at Eden Terrace off the Northland Road. I knew it well, I said.

We discussed music. Trimble told us he enjoyed the classical works of Wagner and Verdi. I said: “Wagner? He was a nazi!”

“No, he wasn’t!” barked Trimble, “He was anti-Semitic.”

“Same thing.” said I.

“No it isn’t.” insisted the UUP man, before launching into a diatribe about the difference between a Nazi and a Jew-hater.

It was my first realisation of the pedantic personality which drove David Trimble.

As we neared Blackpool Airport, the pilot announced the fog which had gone out over the Irish Sea, had returned and the seaside resort was once engulfed in thick fog.

Our only option was to circle in the air high above the Lancashire town.

With little other choice, we three passengers continued our wide ranging conversation.

After ninety minutes, the pilot announced, he had been ordered to divert the flight to Liverpool Airport some 20 miles away. Our plans for a short hop flight were in tatters.

But as we waited for our luggage, Trimble was approached by a pleasant man who introduced himself as Richard Gordon from the Northern Ireland Landowners Association.

He had been on the same flight as us leaving Belfast. And as he was also heading to the Labour Party Conference, he had pre-booked a hired car in which he offered the UUP leader a lift.

But the caring Trimble explained to Richard, his two new-found journalist friends were also bound for Blackpool and the generous PR man immediately included us in his offer of a lift.

As were settled into the comfort of the car, our lively conversation petered away. We were talked out. We had nothing left to say to each other.

But as we neared Blackpool, along the promenade in posh Lytham St. Anne’s, Richard braked heavily. The car shuddered to a halt.

A man had pulled around 20 donkeys tethered to each other, out in front of us. They were bound for the sandy beach where they would shortly begin taking excited children for short rides.

As we sat in silence, I said to David Trimble, “Do you know what those donkeys get for their lunch?”

“I don’t, as a matter of fact.” replied Trimble.

“About half an hour.” said I.

David Trimble laughed uncontrollably. It was as though no one in the world had ever cracked a joke before.

I was well aware it was a pretty awful joke.

But from a journalistic point of view, it gave me future access to a senior Ulster Unionist politician, who would soon play a pivotal role in the history of Northern Ireland.

After that chance meeting on a flight to Blackpool, David Trimble always acknowledged me whenever our paths crossed and he always returned my telephone calls when I rang him.

I’m glad we met when they did. And at his funeral last Monday, I reflected on how a silly joke had assisted me in getting to know such an important historical figure as David Trimble.

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