The reconvened Stormont Assembly pays tribute to peace deal architect Lord Trimble

The crisis-hit Stormont Assembly has come together for a special meeting to pay tribute to David Trimble, one of the main architects of the devolved institutions in Belfast.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party died last week aged 77 after an illness.

He was buried on Monday after a funeral service attended by dignitaries including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Irish President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheal Martin.

The power-sharing structures Lord Trimble helped create in the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement are currently in limbo, with the DUP blocking the creation of a head of government 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 meeting at the Parliament Buildings on Tuesday to allow tributes to Lord Trimble.

Current UUP leader Doug Beattie said it may be difficult for the current generation of MPs to fully understand the impact the unionist statesman had on Northern Ireland politics.

Stormont’s First Minister was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize with the late SDLP leader John Hume in recognition of their efforts to end the Troubles and establish a power-sharing system of devolved governance in the region.

Mr Beattie said that before 1998, unionists and nationalists would not be seen in the same room together, “share a handshake or form a government with shared responsibility”.

He contrasted that with 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 back were freely given from all political corners with warm words of condolence – that’s progress,” he said.

Death of David Trimble

A photo of former Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings (Liam McBurney/PA)

The meeting saw MLAs on opposite sides of the protocol debate refer to Lord Trimble’s legacy as they underlined a desire for power-sharing to return.

Sinn Fein 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 enormous role he played, but it will be unforgiving to those of you who impede 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 UK governments, the US and the EU cannot be underestimated. It can never be taken for granted.

“He and all of them leave a legacy of which any politician would be rightly proud.

“The Good Friday Agreement is a gift to today’s generation, and the promise must be fully fulfilled.

“I stand here today as the leader of the Good Friday Agreement generation, and I want to lead and work with all of you and those you represent.

“Anyone who aims to undermine this work and turn this place upside down should not be in politics.”

David Trimble funeral

UUP leader Doug Beattie (left) greets Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Monday’s funeral (Liam McBurney/PA)

However, DUP veteran Edwin Poots highlighted Lord Trimble’s opposition to the protocol and how he maintained it was at odds with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

He quoted from a newspaper article in which the former UUP leader claimed the protocol pulled the Good Friday Agreement apart.

“I think we would do well to heed David Trimble’s words over the next few weeks,” Poots told the gathering.

“And I trust that we will get this leader going, I trust that we will ensure that the peace that has existed in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years is something that exists for many years to come, and that we provide political leadership in doing so.”

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 made decisions often in the face of stiff opposition when personally it would have been easier not to,” he said.

“The Good Friday Agreement and this assembly exist because of him.”

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 Fein’s Martin McGuinness.

“I will therefore conclude by saying that although many of you in this chamber today may not have met them, the legacy of realizing the potential of this Assembly and the hard-won agreements now falls to yourselves,” he said.

Alliance MLA Andrew Muir described Lord Trimble as a “complex character”, saying that while he would not agree with him on some issues, he said he had made a “significant, significant and positive contribution”.

David Trimble funeral

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheal Martin at the funeral of Lord Trimble (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Thankfully, Northern Ireland is a very different place now than it was in 1998, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we don’t have much further to go. We do, he said.

“The price of a truly reconciled people, a place that everyone is proud to call home, and fully functioning institutions sadly still remains.

“With so many of the giants of the peace process now no longer with us, current and future generations are turning to all of us here to carry the baton forward and complete the journey begun in 1998.”

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole paid tribute to Lord Trimble’s achievements.

“He used a legal mind and remarkable tenacity to achieve – and then implement – an agreement that valued both historical traditions and constitutional ambitions and recognized the connection between this island and both islands,” he said.

“In the SDLP we feel acute sadness at the passing of David Trimble, partner of peace and co-Nobel laureate as he was with John Hume, then serving in the First Ministerial Office with Seamus Mallon, and then Mark Durkan.

“They walked the difficult path to make peace together.”

Jim Allister signs a condolence book

Jim Allister signs a book of condolence (Liam McBurney/PA)

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 established in 1998.

However, in a DUP broadside he hailed Lord Trimble as “more honest politically” than “those who supplanted him as the leader of trade unions”.

He described common cause with Lord Trimble in recent times in opposing the protocol.

At the conclusion of the tributes, MLAs observed a minute’s silence for the late peer in the Assembly Chamber before moving to the Great Hall of the Parliament Buildings to sign a book of condolence.

Mr Maskey was the first to sign, followed by Beattie and then O’Neill.

A picture of Lord Trimble was placed on a table in the hall with a floral tribute.

MLAs formed a long line stretching out from the assembly chamber as they waited to add their signatures.

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