Lord David Trimble, a major architect of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland nearly a quarter-century ago, died after a brief illness. He was 77.
Trimble’s family issued a brief statement confirming the politician died early on Monday. Trimble headed the Ulster Unionist Party from 1995 until 2005.
Tributes came in on the man whose bravery 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. Following the signing of the agreement, he served as the region’s initial first minister.
“David Trimble was a leader of vision and bravery.” “He decided to seize the chance for peace when it offered itself, and he wanted to stop the decades of violence that had scarred his home Northern Ireland,” said Doug Beattie, the current UUP leader, in a statement.
Trimble, a lawyer by training, was typically described as humble, unassuming, and determined if a little prickly. He dubbed the Good Friday Agreement, which will reach its 25th anniversary next April, “the greatest thing in my life.”
The agreement brought to an end three years of fighting in Northern Ireland between paramilitaries fighting to overthrow British authority and loyalist gunmen fighting to keep the region a part of the United Kingdom.
While long-standing tensions remain, and the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement are currently paralyzed by a political spat over post-Brexit purchasing and selling arrangements, the agreement constituted a watershed moment.
“David had enormous hurdles while leading the Ulster Unionist Party in the Good Friday Agreement discussions and persuading his party to sign up for it,” Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin — then widely regarded as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army — said.
Trimble’s impact “cannot be overstated,” Adams said, adding that he and Trimble met frequently and got to know one other well.
Trimble has earned a “distinguished and deserving position in our history books,” according to Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who was echoed by lawmakers from both sides of the Atlantic.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a former UUP colleague whose Democratic Unionist social gathering is now the most major pro-UK campaign, praised Trimble’s determination despite “a significant danger to his safety… He can surely be considered to have changed history in our country.”
“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 conflict of implementing it,” said Peter Mandelson, a former Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
“Throughout, he withstood an attack from members in his own community — I know because we faced many of these audiences together — and he didn’t give in.” He was a brave man who deserved to be remembered.”
Trimble began his political career with the small loyalist Vanguard social gathering in the 1970s, but his career took off when he was elected to Westminster for the UUP in 1990.
In 1995, he rose to fame as a participant in the contentious Drumcree march organized by the loyalist Orange Order. After previous skirmishes, the march proceeded after a tense standoff, and Trimble joined arms in the air with then-DUP leader Ian Paisley in what some saw as a victorious gesture.
Trimble’s reward for the peace agreement, however, was the loss of his Westminster seat. In 2005, he was beaten by more than 5,000 votes, and the UUP’s support fell, forcing him to retire as social gathering head.
Trimble, who had backed Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, wrote in the Daily Telegraph in May this year that it was London’s “responsibility to safeguard the future of Northern Ireland and replace this damaging and community-splitting protocol” — a reference to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit buying and selling preparations.
Trimble noted while accepting the Nobel Prize that he was sometimes accused of lacking “vision.”
He did, however, praise “politicians of the possibility who aspire to establish a workable peace, not in some perfect world that never was, but in this, the imperfect reality that is our only workshop.”