David Trimble has accomplished in death a feat that eluded him in life: he has united Northern Ireland unionists, with one leader after another lining up to laud him.
The region’s inaugural first minister inspired a rare solidarity across the fractured ranks of unionism on Tuesday when even his bitterest foes paid tribute to his role in ending the Troubles.
Divisions that had tormented Lord Trimble before and after the signing of the 1998 Good Friday agreement were set aside in recognition of his efforts to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
The former Ulster Unionist party (UUP) leader, who shared a Nobel peace prize with John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), died on Monday at the age of 77 after a short illness.
A planned recall of the assembly at Stormont on Tuesday was postponed as a mark of respect. His funeral will be held at Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church in Lisburn on 1 August.
The former US president Bill Clinton said Trimble had helped deliver peace. “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.”
Clinton alluded to the fierce backlash against Trimble from unionists who had branded him a traitor. “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. His legacy will endure in all who are living better lives because of him today.”
The former UK prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major and the former Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern also paid tribute, saying without Trimble’s courage there might not have been a Good Friday agreement.
His death prompted a truce in the rivalry between the UUP, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and other groups that scarred Trimble’s leadership between 1995 and 2005 and has continued into the Brexit era.
“You can differ with someone but admire their courage and determination and their commitment to what they believe in,” Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, told RTÉ.
In the 1990s Donaldson had been a member of the UUP but rebelled against Trimble, whom he accused of conceding too much to Irish republicans and the IRA, an accusation that haunted Trimble and helped the DUP eclipse the UUP as the main unionist party. He faced death threats and required bodyguards.
“In David I saw someone who was courageous as a leader, who was determined to pursue the path he had chosen,” said Donaldson. “Our differences were not on the overall strategic approach, they were on the tactics and the approach that was taken.”
The former DUP leader Arlene Foster, who like Donaldson defected from the UUP during Trimble’s reign, praised his commitment to the union. “His enduring desire to protect and promote the union will be his legacy.”
The DUP tone chimed with that of Doug Beattie, the UUP leader. “He put his head above the parapet and there are people alive today who would not have been alive if he had not done what he done,” Beattie told the BBC.
Sinn Féin, which had fractious relations with Trimble, also paid tribute, with the former leader Gerry Adams, his successor, Mary Lou McDonald, and her deputy, Michelle O’Neill, all paying tribute.
Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, and Naomi Long, the Alliance leader, credited Trimble with taking risks for the good of everyone.