David Trimble, key figure in Belfast peace deal, dies aged 77

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DUBLIN — David Trimble, the former Northern Ireland leader who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for delivering narrow Protestant support for the Good Friday Agreement, died Monday, his family announced. He was 77.

Trimble was considered a hard-liner when he was elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1995 on a ticket vowing not to talk to, never mind compromise with, the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin.

Yet within three years, Trimble accepted a multiparty agreement that required him to form a coalition alongside his longtime enemies — a decision that won him Nobel honors but ultimately doomed his fragile leadership and vulnerable party.

From 1999 to 2002, Trimble was first minister atop a four-party administration that suffered repeated breakdowns because the outlawed Irish Republican Army refused to disarm as part of the Good Friday deal.

Among those who deserted the Ulster Unionists because of Trimble’s willingness to compromise were Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson, future leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party. Hostile to the Good Friday deal, the DUP soon overtook Trimble’s UUP on the Protestant side of the community.

By the time the IRA finally did disarm in 2005, creating new political space for Protestants to resume work with Sinn Féin, Trimble had resigned as Ulster Unionist leader following a string of electoral losses to the DUP.

His most famous international moment came during the May 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, when he joined Irish nationalist leader John Hume on stage alongside U2 singer Bono. He and Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party that long advocated peace on Good Friday Agreement lines, went on to share that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

In his address after being awarded the prize, Trimble expressed hopes that the Northern Ireland Assembly could foster a new society where British unionists and Irish nationalists no longer harbored “good reason to fear the other.”

“Ulster Unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics,” Trimble said, describing Northern Ireland’s 1921 foundation as a Protestant-majority state within the U.K. “And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.”

Today’s successors to Trimble and Hume, who died in 2020, paid tribute to Trimble as the man most responsible for keeping enough unionists at the negotiating table opposite Sinn Féin to make the Good Friday deal possible.

“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,” said current Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie. “He will forever be associated with the leadership he demonstrated in the negotiations that led up to the 1998 Belfast Agreement.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood praised Trimble as a figure who “demonstrated immense courage and took political risks that sustained the life of our fledgling peace process.”

“He doesn’t often get credit for it,” Eastwood said, “but without David Trimble’s fortitude, there would simply have been no agreement.”

Bertie Ahern, the former Irish prime minister who played a hands-on role in the Good Friday talks, praised Trimble’s determination to stick to an agreement even though it ultimately destroyed his party’s support base.

“I had many a row with him, but when he made a deal and settled something, he stuck by it,” Ahern said. “He paid a political price for that.”