Good Friday Agreement architect David Trimble dies at 77

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British lawmakers meet after a EU summit to debate and vote on the Brexit deal in London

By Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST (Reuters) -David Trimble, the Northern Irish leader who steered the region's Protestant majority into an historic peace deal with their Catholic rivals that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, has died aged 77, his family said on Monday.

Trimble, who became Northern Irish first minister in the power-sharing government that emerged from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, was one of the chief architects of the accord that mostly ended three decades of bloodshed in the region.

His family said he passed away peacefully following a short illness.

"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 U.S. President Bill Clinton said in a statement, describing Trimble as a leader of courage, vision and principle.

Trimble and Irish nationalist John Hume jointly received the Nobel prize in 1998 for their roles in helping end the violence between Catholic nationalists seeking Irish unity and pro-British Protestants wishing to stay in the United Kingdom that claimed some 3,600 lives.

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.

"He was a giant of British and international politics," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter, praising a fierce determination to change politics for the better and for his championing of democracy over violence.

"IMMENSE CONTRIBUTION"

A trained barrister 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 early attempts at power-sharing in a forerunner agreement to the 1998 accord.

However 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.

Ex-Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose party acted as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), blamed for half of the conflict's deaths, said Trimble's contribution to almost 25 years of relative peace "cannot be underestimated".

"David faced huge challenges when he led the Ulster Unionist Party in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations and persuaded his party to sign on for it. It is to his credit that he supported that Agreement. I thank him for that," Trimble's former political foe said in a statement.

Others referenced the political price Trimble and his party paid, as they were surpassed in elections soon after by more hardline unionists. Trimble resigned as UUP leader in 2005 and took up a life peerage in Britain's House of Lords a year later, where he sat until his death.

He backed Britain's decision to leave the European Union and was a vocal opponent of the resulting post-Brexit trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that have driven a fresh wedge between nationalist and unionist politicians.

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."

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson in Belfast, Andy Bruce in London and Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Editing by Mark Porter, Alison Williams and Chris Reese)

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