Lord David Trimble, a key architect of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland almost a quarter of a century ago, has died after a short illness. He was 77.
The Ulster Unionist party, which Trimble led from 1995-2005, released a brief statement from his family saying the politician had died earlier on Monday.
Tributes poured in for the man whose courage in seeking peace earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, together with the late leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party John Hume. He served as the inaugural first minister of the region in the wake of the signing of the agreement.
“David Trimble was a man of courage and vision. He chose to grasp the opportunity for peace when it presented itself and sought to end the decades of violence that blighted his beloved Northern Ireland,” Doug Beattie, the current UUP leader, said in a statement.
A lawyer by training, known as shy, unassuming and determined if sometimes prickly, Trimble called the Good Friday Agreement — which marks its 25th anniversary next April — “the greatest thing in my life”.
The accord ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland by paramilitaries fighting to oust British rule and loyalist gunmen battling to keep the region part of the UK.
While enduring divisions remain and the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement are currently paralysed in a political row over post-Brexit trading arrangements, the accord marked a watershed moment.
“David faced huge challenges when led the Ulster Unionist party in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and persuaded his party to sign on for it,” said Gerry Adams, who as leader of Sinn Féin — then widely considered the political wing of the Irish Republican Army — was key to securing republican support for the agreement.
Trimble’s contribution “cannot be underestimated”, Adams said, adding that he and Trimble met many times and got to know each other quite well.
Tony Blair, the UK prime minister who signed the Good Friday Agreement, said Trimble “will be mourned by friends and foes alike”.
“When some within his own ranks were opposed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, he supported it. When we needed his willingness to go the extra mile for peace, he travelled that mile. When there was the prospect of collapse of the process without strong leadership, he provided that leadership,” Blair said in a statement.
In sentiments echoed by politicians of all sides north and south, Irish president Michael D. Higgins said Trimble had earned a “distinguished and deserved place in our history books”.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a former UUP colleague whose Democratic Unionist party is now the largest pro-UK force, hailed Trimble’s determination despite “a considerable risk to his safety . . . He can undoubtedly be said to have shaped history in our country.”
Peter Mandelson, a former Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said: “David Trimble not only took on the Herculean task of negotiating the Good Friday Agreement on behalf of unionists but went through all the pain and strife of implementing it.
“Throughout, he faced unending onslaught from people in his own community — I know because we faced many of these audiences together — and ultimately he didn’t buckle. He was a courageous man who has earned his place in history.”
Trimble started out in politics with the small loyalist Vanguard party in the 1970s but his career took off after he was elected to Westminster for the UUP in 1990.
He gained prominence leading the controversial Drumcree parade by the loyalist Orange Order in 1995. After clashes in previous years, the parade went ahead after a tense stand-off, and Trimble joined hands in the air with the then DUP leader Ian Paisley in what some saw as a triumphant gesture.
Trimble’s reward for the peace deal, however, was the loss of his Westminster seat. He was defeated by more than 5,000 votes in 2005, and the UUP’s support collapsed, prompting him to resign as party leader.
Trimble, who had backed Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, in May this year wrote in the Daily Telegraph that it was London’s “responsibility to safeguard the future of Northern Ireland and replace this damaging and community-splitting protocol” — a reference to post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Accepting the Nobel Prize, Trimble said he was sometimes accused of lacking “the vision thing”.
But he hailed “politicians of the possible who seek to make a working peace, not in some perfect world, that never was, but in this, the flawed world, which is our only workshop”.