David Young, Rebecca Black and Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The Stormont Assembly has reconvened for a special sitting to pay tribute to David Trimble, one of the principal architects of the devolved institutions in Belfast.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner and former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) died last week at the age of 77 following an illness.
He was buried on Monday after a funeral service that was attended by dignitaries including President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson.
The powersharing structures Lord Trimble helped create in the landmark Good Friday Agreement in 1998 are currently in limbo, with the DUP blocking the creation of a governing executive in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
The DUP’s refusal to agree to the nomination of a new speaker has also prevented the reconstitution of the legislative assembly following May’s election.
Despite the impasse, party whips agreed to hold a special gathering in the chamber of Parliament Buildings on Tuesday to allow for tributes to be paid to Lord Trimble.
Current UUP leader Doug Beattie said it could be difficult for the current generation of MLAs to fully understand the impact the unionist statesman had on Northern Ireland politics.
Stormont’s inaugural first minister was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize with late SDLP leader John Hume in recognition of their efforts to end the Troubles and establish a powersharing system of devolved governance in the North.
Mr Beattie said that before 1998, unionists and nationalists would not be seen in the same room together, “never mind share a handshake or form a government with joint responsibilities”.
He contrasted that to scenes at Monday’s funeral where political leaders from across the divide came together.
“At David’s humble and dignified funeral, handshakes and pats on the shoulder were offered freely from every political corner with warm words of condolence – that’s progress,” he said.
The sitting saw MLAs on opposing sides of the protocol debate reference Lord Trimble’s legacy as they stressed a desire for powersharing to return.
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said it would be a “travesty” if the institutions were not restored before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next year.
“History will be kind to David Trimble for the huge part he played, but it will be unforgiving to those of you who obstruct progress or refuse to show leadership,” she said.
“What was achieved by David Trimble together with the leaders of nationalism and republicanism, the Irish and British governments, the United States and the EU cannot be underestimated. It can never be taken for granted.
“He and all of them leave a legacy for which any politician would be rightly proud.
“The Good Friday Agreement is a gift to today’s generation and its promise must be fully realised.
“I stand here today as a leader of the Good Friday Agreement generation, and I want to lead and work with you all and those whom you represent.
“Anyone who sets out to undermine this work and turns this place upside down should not be in politics.”
However, DUP veteran Edwin Poots highlighted Lord Trimble’s opposition to the protocol and how he maintained it was inconsistent with the terms of the Good Friday deal.
He quoted from a newspaper article in which the former UUP leader claimed the protocol was pulling the Good Friday Agreement apart.
“I think we’d do well to listen to the words of David Trimble over the course of the next number of weeks,” Mr Poots told the Assembly.
“And I trust that we do get this executive up and running, I trust that we will ensure the peace that exists in Northern Ireland over the course of the last 25 years is something which exists for many years to come, and that we give the political leadership in doing that.”
Outgoing Stormont Speaker Alex Maskey said it was only right MLAs were recalled to pay tribute to Lord Trimble.
“There is no doubt that David Trimble took risks and took decisions often in the face of fierce opposition when it would have been personally easier not to do so,” he said.
“The Good Friday Agreement and this Assembly do exist because of him.”
Mr Maskey also noted the passing of many significant political leaders in recent years, including former DUP leader Ian Paisley, SDLP leader Mr Hume and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.
“I would therefore close by saying that while many of you in this chamber today may not have met them, the legacy of realising the potential of this Assembly and the agreements that were hard won now falls to yourselves,” he said.
Alliance Party MLA Andrew Muir described Lord Trimble as a “complex character”, and said that while he would not have agreed with him on some matters, he said he had made a “significant, substantial and positive contribution”.
‘Very different place’
“Northern Ireland is, thankfully, a very different place now than it was back in 1998, but we should not kid our self that we don’t have much further to travel. We do,” he said.
“The prize of a truly reconciled people, a place where everyone is proud to call home, and fully functioning institutions sadly remains yet to be achieved.
“With so many of the giants of the peace process now no longer with us, current and future generations turn to us all here to take the baton on and complete the journey set out in 1998.”
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole hailed Lord Trimble’s achievements.
“He used a legal mind and remarkable tenacity to achieve – and then implement – a deal which esteemed both historic traditions and constitutional aspirations and acknowledged the interconnectedness of this island, and of both islands,” he said.
“In the SDLP, we feel an acute sadness at the passing of David Trimble, partner in peace and co-Nobel Laureate as he was with John Hume, and then serving in the first minister’s office alongside Seamus Mallon, and then Mark Durkan.
“They walked the difficult road of peace-making together.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said he disagreed with Lord Trimble on the Belfast Agreement, describing it as having been built on the “mass injustice” of the release of terrorist prisoners.
He said the Assembly has been failing and dysfunctional since it was set up in 1998.
However, in a broadside at the DUP, he paid tribute to Lord Trimble as “more honest politically” than “those who supplanted him as the leader of unionism”.
He described common cause with Lord Trimble in recent times in opposing the protocol.
At the conclusion of the tributes, MLAs held a minute’s silence for the late peer in the Assembly chamber before moving to the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings to sign a book of condolence.
Mr Maskey was first to sign, followed by Mr Beattie and then Ms O’Neill.
A picture of Lord Trimble was placed on a table in the hall with a floral tribute.
MLAs formed a long line extending out from the Assembly chamber as they waited to add their signatures.