LONDON – David Trimble helped end decades of violence in Northern Ireland by shunning his hardline unionist past and negotiating with a former foe in pursuit of a goal they both shared: Peace.
That willingness to compromise was remembered Tuesday on both sides of the Atlantic as world leaders honored Trimble, who died Monday at the age of 77.
Trimble shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with John Hume for their work in securing the Good Friday Agreement, which helped end three decades of bloodshed that killed more than 3,000 people on both sides of Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict.
“Time after time during the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, he made the hard choices over the politically expedient ones because he believed future generations deserved to grow up free from violence and hatred,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton said in a statement. “His faith in the democratic process allowed him to stand up to strong opposition in his own community, persuade them of the merits of compromise, and share power with his former adversaries.”
The agreement, negotiated with the help of Clinton’s Northern Ireland envoy, George Mitchell, created a power-sharing government that sought to bridge the divide between unionists, who support continued ties with the United Kingdom, and nationalists, who back reunification with the Republic of Ireland. It also forced both sides to accept previously unthinkable concessions such as reorganizing the pro-unionist police force and requiring the Irish Republican Army to give up its weapons.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair said Trimble had the courage to make the deal, even though he knew he would be called a traitor by some members of his community.
“It wouldn’t have happened without him; it’s as simple as that, really,” Blair told the BBC. “What he gave, not just through the period of the negotiations … but then in the years afterwards, it was a master class in leadership.”
Born William David Trimble in Belfast on Oct. 15, 1944, he was educated at Queen’s University, Belfast, and pursued an academic career in law before entering politics in the early 1970s as a member of the hardline Vanguard Party. After moving to the Ulster Unionist Party, he became leader of what was then the largest unionist party in 1995.
Like most Protestant politicians at the time, Trimble initially opposed power-sharing with the largely Catholic republicans as something that would jeopardize Northern Ireland’s union with Britain. At first he refused to speak directly with Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. But ultimately he relented and in 1997 became the first unionist leader to negotiate with Sinn Fein.
Formal peace talks began the next year, with Trimble and Hume signing the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998.
Trimble was elected first minister in Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing government the same year, with Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party representing the nationalist community as deputy first minister.
In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Trimble encouraged other would-be peacemakers to pursue pragmatic solutions and avoid being “too precise or pedantic.”
“Heaven knows, in Ulster, what I have looked for is a peace within the realms of the possible,” he said. “We could only have started from where we actually were, not from where we would have liked to be.”
But Trimble paid a huge price for his pragmatism.
There were threats to his safety, and ultimately he was replaced by more hard-line politicians who hadn’t supported the peace deal. As he worked to make sure both sides implemented the terms of the agreement, Trimble was forced to look on as his former opponents were celebrated for the concessions they had made.
But he never complained, Blair said.
“The hardest thing in leadership is to say no to your own supporters,” Blair said. “It’s easy to say yes to them and it’s easy to say no to your opponents, but to say no to your own supporters, that is tough. And he did it, and he carried it.”
In his Nobel speech, Trimble told his audience not to fear the future.
“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," he said.
"It is a dark sludge of historical sectarianism. We can leave it behind us if we wish.”