David Trimble was the man who lost some of his friends, lost his seat and saw his party lose its position at the head of unionism rather than abandon the Belfast Agreement.
But today demonstrated how, despite all that he lost, Trimble’s vision won. MLA after MLA, many of whom had been his bitter opponents in life, stood up in the Assembly chamber to not only praise, but in several cases to identify themselves with his ideals in a way which once would have been shocking.
As has been happening since Trimble’s death more than a week ago, those who loved him in life and those who despised him united in respect for the abilities, courage and achievements of this man of such complexity and contradiction.
Technically, Tuesday’s tributes did not constitute a sitting of the Assembly. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires that the first substantive act of the Assembly after an election must be the election of a Speaker, something which the DUP has blocked.
This meant that although MLAs met in the Assembly chamber and operated to the conventions of the legislature, there was no order paper and the proceedings will not form part of the official Hansard record of Assembly proceedings (although a transcript will be published on the Assembly website).
MLAs united in eloquent tribute, led by Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey, who in 1998 was Sinn Fein’s chief whip.
He said: “It is one of those regrettable aspects of life and politics that it is often only on the passing of a colleague that we take the time to reflect on the good that they did.
“David was a complex and a thoughtful character, and as the leader of unionism, he carried a heavy burden. It struck me that he was always juggling between his heart and his head in making the next call, but his head nearly always won.”
He recalled how before Trimble’s first one-to-one meeting with Gerry Adams, at a point where Mr Maskey acknowledged such a meeting was politically problematic for the UUP leader, he had liaised with him about the practicalities.
With the UUP leader engaged in a series of meetings that day, including with the Prime Minister and wanting to attend an opera for a good cause which he strongly supported, the First Minister came to the conclusion that he could not do everything he wanted to do, and Mr Maskey said “it looked like the one-to-one would have to wait”.
However, he recalled: “A short time later, word came back from David with arrangements for the meeting. He’d decided obviously not to leave and the negotiations made some further progress.”
Doug Beattie, the man who now leads Trimble’s former party, told the chamber that the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s decisions “shaped this island and its people, and saved lives” while “protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the UK”.
He said that Trimble “was a strategic thinker, unlike so many tactical short-term thinkers of today”. The Upper Bann MLA said of the former Upper Bann MP: “I am saddened, Mr Speaker, that we speak so highly of him in death, but that we failed to do similar in life.”
He said that Trimble had joined him to canvass Upper Bann in early April ahead of the Assembly election and that he had knocked door after door, despite his frail state while surrounded by Young Unionists. He said that there was still “a fire in his eye for politics.”
He also spoke in recognition of Trimble’s devoted wife Daphne and former SDLP leader John Hume: “Without David, we’d have had no Belfast-Good Friday Agreement; but without John Hume, we’d have had no pathway of getting there.”
Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill said that although she did not know Trimble, “there is no doubt that he made a huge contribution”.
She said: “Today I put on record our recognition and our respect for the courage, for the generosity and for the personal risks that were taken by David Trimble to achieve peace in Ireland.”
But the most remarkable messages of admiration came from the DUP, the party which for years denounced Trimble as a Judas and a traitor before then entering into power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
Edwin Poots, one of only four current MLAs who sat with Trimble in the first Assembly, smiled as he referred euphemistically to past “robust exchanges” in the Assembly, adding: “I certainly hope that David enjoyed those exchanges as much as I enjoyed them.”
The veteran DUP figure said he had first met the then Queen’s University law lecturer during the 1980s on a Lagan Valley group organising protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Mr Poots said that he was a sharp intellect with “an attention to detail second to none”. Speaking reflectively, Mr Poots acknowledged that “he was brave”, drawing attention to how difficult his position was in a constituency such as Upper Bann with its substantial traditional unionist electorate, and added: “He was a dedicated unionist”.
Fellow Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan, a former First Minister, said he “admired and respected” Trimble and noted that the Assembly in which they sit “owes its creation to David Trimble and the pivotal role which he played in establishing these institutions through the agreement that he struck in the Belfast Agreement”.
He described Lord Trimble as someone who was “committed to the principle of power-sharing” as well as the principle of consent. “Those are ideas that I share – power-sharing, the principle of consent, working together, making this place work,” he said.
DUP chief whip Joanne Bunting said she had been outside Hillsborough Castle protesting when Trimble was negotiating. She admitted that “things were different then”, with queues of people lining up to enter the Assembly’s public gallery to see the big beasts of politics.
She paid tribute to how he had “ploughed on in the face of staunch opposition and at personal cost, because of the courage of his convictions and his firmly held belief that he was doing the right thing”.
The SDLP’s Stormont leader, Matthew O’Toole, told MLAs: “Since the creation of this jurisdiction, successive leaders of unionism had struggled to deliver meaningful compromise without the demon accusations of Lundyism and treason. Trimble faced these accusations too, but stuck at it.”
He said that the SDLP felt “an acute sadness at the passing of David Trimble, our partner in peace” who “did more than any other unionist leader to acknowledge the shortcomings in the post-partition settlement, and find ways of building something better”.
He added: “David Trimble was a committed and convinced unionist, but he was more than that. He had an ethical and intellectual analysis of this complex place that went beyond simply a one-dimensional perspective.”
North Down Alliance MLA Andrew Muir said the former UUP leader’s courage in pressing on, even when facing serious security threats and when physically attacked by anti-Agreement unionists at the Upper Bann count centre in 2001, was remarkable.
Seated beside Mr Muir on the Alliance front bench was Eoin Tennyson, an MLA for Trimble’s Upper Bann constituency who was not even born when the Agreement was signed in 1998.
He said: “I’m young enough to have benefited fully from the achievement of Lord Trimble and all of those who reached across bitter divides in 1998 in pursuit of a better future for me and for my generation. It’s thanks to him and others like him that I have had the opportunity to serve in this chamber and that I’ve been able to grow up in a more peaceful and more prosperous society than that of my parents’ generation.”
TUV leader Jim Allister spoke personally of a political opponent whose agreement he still opposes, but with whom he had long links. “I have known David Trimble for most of my adult life,” he told MLAs, saying that he had lectured him in law at Queen’s.
“You didn’t have to sit very long in a David Trimble lecture or tutorial to recognise that you were in the presence of a supreme academic and someone who was an intellectual of giant proportions.
“David manfully did his best to teach me two of the driest subjects in the legal curriculum – land law and equity. His lack of success in attaining enthusiasm on my part for those subjects was not a failure on his part, but on mine.”
He went on to recall how “there was a fellow student in respect of whom David subsequently engendered great enthusiasm in a different sphere and in the far more lasting sphere – and of course my fellow student Miss Daphne Orr went on to become Mrs Daphne Trimble. And what a rock Daphne has been for David through those years”.
Mr Allister said he remained of the view that “the Belfast Agreement was built upon a mass injustice of the release of hundreds of terrorists of all shades on to our streets as a precursor to terrorists in the government, all part of a structure which has proved to be failing and dysfunctional ever since”.
However, in a pointed reference to the DUP, he added: “David Trimble was more honest politically in his espousal, promotion and operation of the Belfast Agreement than those who supplanted him as the leader of unionism, who supplanted him by vilification of his agreement and vilification of the man to an extent which was often vicious and unnecessary…those very same people and party then donned the political clothes of David Trimble to operate to the full the very same agreement that they’d vilified throughout those years.”
Mr Allister was also one of several MLAs who drew attention to Lord Trimble’s firm opposition to the NI Protocol, which he argued was destroying the 1998 agreement.
Mr Beattie outlined that Trimble had said “time and time again” that the NI Protocol undermines the 1998 Belfast Agreement and that “it has irked me on many occasions when people say the protocol protects the Belfast Agreement when David was saying it was damaging it”.
Former Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said the situation “vexed” Trimble. He added that several years ago at a lunch hosted by Nancy Pelosi he had sat beside “a US Congress leader who’d apparently been instrumental in writing the agreement”.
He recalled: “The so-called US expert said that he didn’t know what David had to do with it and said it was all down to Hume and Adams”. Mr Aiken said that “regrettably, the very same politician still parrots that reductive narrative, most recently in this very building”.
Fellow former UUP leader Tom Elliott said: “We’ve heard and witnessed people lauding the Belfast Agreement who might not have lauded it at the time, and I always thought that David Trimble may be bitter about that. But I don’t believe he was. I believe David Trimble thought ‘if these people want to laud the Belfast Agreement and what we did at that time, then so be it; if it’s going to make Northern Ireland a better place, if it’s for the benefit of the community, then by all means do it’.”
Mr Elliott said that his predecessor’s career was cut short because he had been let down by the British Government, the Irish Government, and the IRA.
Another former UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, recalled how Lord Trimble had gone to Buncrana to attend the funeral of victims of the Real IRA’s Omagh Bomb.
“He did so knowing that it might provoke the anger of the Orange Order but he did so because he had a greater responsibility – that of First Minister of Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mr Nesbitt appealed for a return to “the spirit of the agreement” by prioritising “the greater good” over partisan concerns.
After more than an hour of tributes, MLAs stood in silent tribute to the former First Minister before moving to the great hall where they signed a book of condolence.