The Northern Ireland politician won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing decades of sectarian violence to an end
David Trimble, a leading Protestant politician in Northern Ireland who set aside his hard-line stance to become a key negotiator in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, an accord that ended the decades of sectarian violence and brought him a share of the Nobel Peace Prize, has died aged 77.
Trimble was the inaugural first minister of Northern Ireland, a position created – along with the coequal rank of deputy first minister – in the power-sharing agreement between unionists and nationalists established under the Good Friday Agreement. The two groups had been engaged in an often violent conflict since the late 1960s, when the Troubles began.
Unionists, including loyalists, were largely Protestant and wished for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Nationalists, including Irish republicans, drew mainly from the region’s Catholic minority and argued for an independent, united Ireland. The struggle between the two groups resulted in more than 3,500 deaths, as Northern Ireland endured years of bombings, shootings and unrest that at times appeared intractable.
Trimble, a law professor and nonpractising barrister in Belfast, had grown up in a Presbyterian family and initially aligned himself with the unyielding Vanguard movement, which has been described by The Guardian as an “extreme unionist grouping”.
During the Gulf war, Trimble likened the Republic of Ireland’s claims on Northern Ireland to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s attempt to overtake Kuwait. Once, after a march through a Catholic neighbourhood near Belfast, Trimble danced a jig with Ian Paisley, a Protestant minister whose fiery rhetoric had long fueled anti-Catholic sentiment and violence in Northern Ireland.
“I would personally draw the line at violence and terrorism,” The Independent quoted Trimble as saying. “But if we are talking about a campaign that involves demonstrations and so on, then a certain amount of violence may be inescapable.”
Over time, however, Trimble moderated his views and he found a new political home in the more mainstream Ulster Unionist Party in the late 1970s. He began a political rise, winning election to the British parliament in 1990. To the amazement of many observers of the political turmoil in Northern Ireland, he became a principal figure in a peace process that he had once opposed.
“Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics,” Trimble later said, reflecting on the view he came to hold. “And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.”
Other key participants in the Northern Ireland peace process included John Hume, a Catholic politician who led the Social Democratic and Labour Party; Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army; and former US senate majority leader George Mitchell who helped broker the Good Friday Agreement as a special envoy under President Bill Clinton.
The 1998 Nobel Peace Prize ultimately went to Hume and Trimble. (Hume died in 2020.)
“As the leader of the traditionally predominant party in Northern Ireland,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared, “David Trimble showed great political courage when, at a critical stage of the process, he advocated solutions which led to the peace agreement. As the head of the Northern Ireland government, he has taken the first steps towards building up the mutual confidence on which a lasting peace must be based.”
That mutual confidence at times appeared tenuous, as Trimble faced criticism from within his party for his role in the peace process. He lost his seat in parliament in 2005, prompting The Guardian to report that “the centre dropped out of Northern Ireland politics”. Trimble became a member of the House of Lords in 2006 and joined the Conservative Party the following year.
“David faced huge challenges when he led the Ulster Unionist Party in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and persuaded his party to sign on for it,” Adams said in a statement cited by the Associated Press.
“While we held fundamentally different political opinions on the way forward nonetheless I believe he was committed to making the peace process work. David’s contribution to the Good Friday Agreement and to the quarter century of relative peace that followed cannot be underestimated.”
William David Trimble was born in Bangor, a seaside town near Belfast, on 15 October 1944. His parents worked in the civil service.
Trimble studied law at Queen’s University in Belfast, where he graduated in 1968 and remained as a lecturer into the early years of his political career.
His first marriage, to Heather McComb, ended in divorce. In 1978, he married Daphne Orr. Besides his wife, survivors include their four children.
In his Nobel lecture, Trimble declared himself “personally and perhaps culturally conditioned to be sceptical of speeches which are full of sound and fury, idealistic in intention, but impossible of implementation”.
“I resist the kind of rhetoric which substitutes vapour for vision,” he continued. “Instinctively, I identify with the person who said that when he heard a politician talk of his vision, he recommended him to consult an optician!”
He did, however, achieve a rhetorical flourish in that speech, evoking the green hills of his homeland.
“Politics can be likened to driving at night over unfamiliar hills and mountains,” Trimble observed. “We should be encouraged by having come so far, and face into the next hill, rather than the mountain beyond. It is not that the mountain is not in my mind, but the hill has to be climbed first.
“There are hills in Northern Ireland and there are mountains,” he continued. “The mountain, if we could but see it clearly, is not in front of us but behind us, in history. The dark shadow we seem to see in the distance is not really a mountain ahead, but the shadow of the mountain behind – a shadow from the past thrown forward into our future. It is a dark sludge of historical sectarianism. We can leave it behind us if we wish.”
David Trimble, activist and former first minister of Northern Ireland, born 15 October 1944, died 25 July 2022
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