Trimble passed away peacefully following a short illness, his family said on Monday.
Trimble and Irish nationalist John Hume jointly received the Nobel prize in 1998 for their roles in crafting the Good Friday Agreement, which helped end the violence between Catholic nationalists seeking Irish unity and pro-British Protestants who wanted to stay in the UK. About 3,600 people died during some 30 years of conflict in the territory.
“Time after time during the negotiations 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 US President Bill Clinton said in a statement, describing Trimble as a leader of courage, vision and principle.
Tributes poured in from politicians in Ireland and the UK.
Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said Trimble’s regard in his Nobel speech for the “politicians of the possible” summed up the Northern Irishman’s achievements over many decades, often in challenging circumstances that culminated in the “crucial and courageous role” he played in the peace negotiations.
A lawyer who preferred academia to the courtroom, Trimble’s first foray into Northern Irish politics came in 1974 as a hardline politician who helped bring down earlier attempts at power-sharing.
He joined the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party in the late 1970s and would eventually drag his unwilling party into the talks, which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Many Protestants regarded him as a traitor for doing so.
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, in line to be Northern Ireland’s next first minister after her nationalist party swept to a historic victory in assembly elections in May, lauded Trimble’s “very significant contribution to the peace process”.
Trimble’s death comes at a time of renewed tensions in Northern Ireland with the now-dominant pro-UK force, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), refusing to serve under O’Neill until London rips up a post-Brexit trading pact with the European Union.
But the DUP has still refused to enter the power-sharing government with Sinn Fein.
The UUP also opposes the protocol. But at his final public appearance at the end of June, Trimble said the cornerstone of peace remained in place.
“People are actually not throwing the [Good Friday] agreement to pieces, their complaints are still based on the existence of the agreement,” Trimble said at the unveiling of a portrait of him. “They are not saying ‘throw it out’, so that’s the thing to bear in mind.”
As part of the process established by the Good Friday Agreement, Trimble became the UUP’s first leader in 30 years to meet the Irish premier in Dublin, Ireland and was the first unionist leader since Ireland’s partition to negotiate with Sinn Fein, which was the political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Sinn Fein’s leader at the time, Gerry Adams, acknowledged the challenges that Trimble faced persuading his own side.
Following the 1998 deal, Trimble was first minister of Northern Ireland. Losing his seat in parliament in 2005 and resigning as UUP leader, he later took up a life peerage in Britain’s House of Lords where he sat until his death.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said those that followed Trimble now have a shared responsibility to continue to build on the better society he helped create.
“His contribution was immense, unforgettable and frankly irreplaceable,” said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who helped broker the peace agreement alongside Clinton.
“We have lost today someone who will be mourned by friends and foes alike.”