Peter Morrison  /  AP file
Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble lost his seat in Parliament in Thursday’s election.
updated 5/7/2005 4:55:38 PM ET 2005-05-07T20:55:38

Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, a key backer of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, said Saturday he will resign as Ulster Unionist Party leader after losing a decade-long battle to steer fellow Protestants toward compromise with Roman Catholics.

Trimble’s decision to quit followed the Ulster Unionists’ worst-ever performance in British parliamentary elections Thursday. The party that once dominated politics in this predominantly Protestant territory retained just one of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats — and the highest-profile loser was Trimble himself.

In a statement issued by Ulster Unionist headquarters in Belfast, the 60-year-old Trimble said he told senior party colleagues: “I do not wish to continue as leader.”

The Ulster Unionists declined to say when Trimble’s resignation would take effect or when its grass-roots council would name a successor.

Trimble’s most likely successors also suffered their own defeats Thursday against the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, which has mobilized growing Protestant hostility to the 1998 accord and Trimble’s long-pivotal support for it.

Analysts credit Trimble with taking many gambles concerning the complex Good Friday pact, which proposed dozens of goals designed to promote peace and reconciliation following a three-decade conflict over this British territory that left 3,600 dead. Today, Northern Ireland is deeply polarized but largely peaceful.

Trimble narrowly survived several attempts to unseat him as Ulster Unionist leader, but he couldn’t stop the flow of votes to Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists. Paisley, 79, landed the killer blow Thursday, when his party won nine seats including Upper Bann, a district southwest of Belfast that Trimble had held since 1990.

Blair gives Trimble credit
“History will show that without David Trimble’s period as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland could never have become the changed place it is today,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who won a third term in Thursday’s vote.

“Without him, there would have been no Belfast agreement. It would not have been possible to bridge the deep divide in Northern Ireland.”

When he was elected Ulster Unionist leader in 1995, Trimble — a former law professor at Queen’s University of Belfast with a shy, bookish manner — was considered the most hard-line candidate. He rose to national prominence that year by championing the rights of Northern Ireland’s major Protestant brotherhood, the Orange Order, to parade past hostile Catholic neighborhoods each summer.

But soon Trimble was walking down unexpected roads of his own and becoming a hated figure among Orangemen.

Crucially, while other Protestant parties boycotted negotiations involving Sinn Fein, the party linked to the outlawed Irish Republican Army, Trimble kept the Ulster Unionists at the table. Trimble backed the April 10, 1998, deal — and immediately split his party down the middle.

The pact called for Protestants and Catholics, including Sinn Fein, to form a power-sharing administration; for convicted members of the IRA and other truce-observing paramilitary groups to be freed; and for those groups to disarm fully by mid-2000.

‘No guns, no government’
Protestants expected the IRA to disarm as the price for Sinn Fein’s involvement in government, but the IRA refused. Trimble — who received the Nobel alongside Catholic moderate leader John Hume — rallied Protestant support with the slogan, “No guns, no government.”

But after a 17-month deadlock, Trimble dramatically announced he would “jump first” and formed, in December 1999, a four-party coalition that included Sinn Fein. To the disgust of many Protestants, the administration included a reputed IRA commander, Martin McGuinness, as education minister.

Britain soon freed remaining IRA prisoners and began a painstaking reform of Northern Ireland’s mostly Protestant police force — moves opposed by Protestants — but the IRA refused to disarm in reply. Trimble repeatedly took the administration to the brink of collapse in showdowns with the IRA, which finally scrapped an unknown amount of weaponry in October 2001.

But the delay, and the IRA’s insistence that its handover of arms remain secret, proved deadly to Trimble’s political base.

Protestant unease over Sinn Fein popularity
Protestants appeared just as unsettled with the popular growth of Sinn Fein, which rapidly overtook the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party among Catholic voters. Reflecting that trend, Sinn Fein won five parliamentary seats Thursday, the SDLP just three.

And power-sharing finally collapsed in October 2002 from accumulated tensions between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein. The trigger was an IRA spying scandal inside the government that involved alleged intelligence-gathering on potential targets.

Trimble, speaking to the British Broadcasting Corp., blamed the Sinn Fein-IRA movement for fatally undermining his position, saying the IRA should have disarmed fully by May 2000.

“That is what they undertook to do; that is what they failed to do,” he said.

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