In 1998, David Trimble and John Hume were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in crafting a deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence in Ireland.
Trimble, who has died aged 77, sacrificed his career and his party to secure peace for Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement had been recognised that year by the Nobel committee as a landmark moment in relations between the region’s Protestant and Catholic communities, and between London and Dublin.
It set up a devolved assembly, cross-border institutions with the participation of the Republic of Ireland and saw Dublin renounce its territorial claim to the six counties that remained in the UK after partition a century ago.
Yet in backing the accord, Trimble failed to take his own community with him. The move split his Ulster Unionist party, eventually paving the way for Rev Ian Paisley’s more inflexible Democratic Unionists to emerge as the mouthpiece of unionism.
Born in 1944 in Bangor, Co Down, to a Presbyterian family, Trimble was not always destined for affairs of state, first becoming a lecturer in law. He opposed an earlier peace initiative, the ill-fated Sunningdale Agreement which lasted five months, collapsing in May 1974. Ironically, Trimble’s deputy first minister Seamus Mallon, the most senior Catholic nationalist in Belfast’s new devolved administration, dubbed the Good Friday Agreement “Sunningdale for slow learners”, such were the broad similarities.
In the early, bitter years of the Troubles, however, with the nationalist paramilitary IRA’s bombing under way, few were ready for concessions. Trimble is said to have been deeply affected by the killing of Edgar Graham, a budding unionist politician and fellow Queen’s University Belfast law lecturer — Trimble had to identify the body after he was murdered by the IRA on campus in 1983.
He had previously backed a breakaway party, but in 1990 took the UUP-held House of Commons seat of Upper Bann in a by-election.
Trimble was soon a rising star. He became a serious UUP leadership contender when, in advance of the contest, he marched with an Orange parade through a Catholic neighbourhood in Co Armagh. This won him the support of grassroots unionists who saw images of him arm-in-arm with Paisley, the DUP firebrand.
The move was criticised by many nationalists as an act of sectarian triumphalism; London and Dublin feared for the embryonic peace process. But on securing the leadership in 1995, he adopted a pragmatic approach.
Even after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Trimble remained exercised about the slow decommissioning of IRA arms; but Sinn Féin, its political wing, had to be allowed to sit alongside the other parties for peace to be binding on both communities.
Trimble haemorrhaged support and the IRA remained intransigent. At one point, while still UUP leader, he was opposed by half his MPs. And in the general election of 2005, the dispute with the IRA still unresolved and the assembly suspended, the UUP returned just one MP — a sorry result for a party that once boasted 10 of the region’s 18 seats.
Trimble himself was a casualty, forced out of the leadership after he lost his seat. In his obstinate pursuit of peace he had sacrificed his career, destroyed his party and left Paisley as unionist top dog.
In 1998, at the time of the historic referendums that would decide the future of the region, Trimble shared a TV studio with Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams but refused to address him directly.
Much had changed by 2017, however, when Trimble wrote to a dying Martin McGuinness, commending the former IRA commander, who until then was Paisley’s deputy first minister, for his willingness to engage.
“You reached out to the unionist community in a way some of them were reluctant to reach out to you,” he wrote. “I and my colleagues believed that you were indispensable.”
In the recent controversy over the post-Brexit arrangements for the region, Trimble, from his position in the House of Lords where he sat as a Conservative peer, opposed the Northern Ireland protocol. He joined other pro-union figures in arguing the protocol was a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, because it undermined the principle that change in the province’s status could only take place with the consent of both communities.
Among the many tributes on the day of his death, Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach at the time of the peace deal, said Trimble’s “lasting legacy is born out of the courageous stance he took in 1998, which ensured that the principles behind the Belfast Agreement would become a reality”.