By Anne Cadwallader
Belfast — Yet another crisis in the Northern Ireland peace process seems virtually inevitable after this week’s devastating defeat of the Ulster Unionist Party candidate in the South Antrim by-election.
A challenge to David Trimble’s leadership of the UUP is on the cards, probably by the end of October, in the wake of Democratic Unionist Party candidate Willie McCrea’s shock victory over David Burnside of the UUP last Friday.
The required 60 signatures have already been gathered to demand a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, the party’s governing body, and possible leadership candidates are being canvassed.
At the last UUC meeting, its 860 members voted to rejoin the Stormont power-sharing Executive by only 53 percent to 47 percent. With many local councillors now wondering if their seats are safe, observers believe Trimble could lose the initiative this time around.
The crisis comes after a 16,000 UUP majority was overturned into a 822 DUP majority in the South Antrim constituency by-election, made necessary by the death of sitting MP, Clifford Forsythe.
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The UUP candidate, David Burnside, widely regarded as anti-Agreement, failed to make any impact in the constituency. He was regarded as wooden, cold, arrogant and even too British by the locals.
In the immediate aftermath of his defeat, Burnside said it had a strong message for the UUP leadership who had to rethink their strategy on the Agreement. Ulster unionists would not accept being in government with Sinn FTin while the IRA had not decommissioned, he said, nor would they accept the destruction of the RUC.
Trimble blamed his party’s defeat on the British government’s implementation of the Agreement, particularly over policing. He also blamed the weather — it rained heavily on polling day — and the media.
In his “thank you” speech, at 2 am local time on Friday, McCrea held up a UUP newspaper advert and read out “If Willie McCrea wins today, would the last person to leave South Antrim please turn out the lights”. McCrea then added “I would say the only light to be turned out tonight is on the unionists who would have betrayed this country.
“I have to say to Mr. Trimble tonight, the lights are being turned out on you. The rest of Ulster will follow. My final thanks is to the God of heaven who has given me strength and grace to fight this election.”
“Tonight the people of South Antrim have lit a fire that will never be put out. South Antrim today, East Londonderry tomorrow! I told David Trimble at the talks that you may try but you’ll never sell Ulster!”.
Outspoken anti-agreement UUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, said the party was facing electoral meltdown and should withdraw from the power-sharing Executive in the absence of decommissioning by the IRA.
Another anti-Agreement MP, Willie Ross, echoed Donaldson’s call. He said voter disquiet about the entire Agreement, not just the Patten proposals to change the RUC, had led to the by-election defeat.
“People believe they were misled and let down and lied to by the Prime Minister, and David Trimble walked into it, and the unionist population is not in a forgiving mood.”
Fellow dissident MP, Willie Thompson, said the by-election result showed that Trimble had followed a policy which had failed. “He should give way to a new leader before the next election,” he said.
Michael McGimpsey, the UUP Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure, said the electorate had given the party a clear message, and it would listen to it.
Asked about Trimble’s position as party leader, he said there was no alternative.
“We do not knee-jerk in our party. We are not hysterical. We are not downhearted. We learn our lessons and we go back again and again. We never give up. As far as David is concerned, there is no alternative. It’s like the Agreement. There is no alternative.”
UUP’s loss threatens peace process: Analysis by Jack Holland
The struggle over the Good Friday Agreement has now entered a new phase which might be called the post-South Antrim by-election phase. It could well prove the most dangerous in the agreement?s short but turbulent history.
The Ulster Unionist Party, reeling from its loss of the seat to the Paisleyite Rev. William McCrea of the Democratic Unionist Party, and fearing the prospect of a DUP landslide at the next general election — sometime in 2001 — has already issued warnings that it can no longer give any more ?concessions? to nationalists clamoring to have the Patten Report on police reform implemented. As well, David Trimble, the UUP leader, has said that his position could become untenable unless the IRA allows another round of inspections of its arms dumps.
?It?s a very bad result for David Trimble, and a very bad result for the Unionist Party,? said UUP councillor Chris McGimpsey. McGimpsey, on the liberal wing of the party, is known as one of the agreement?s strongest supporters and a long-time backer of Trimble. He is adamant, like many Unionists, that the loss of South Antrim is a direct result of what Protestants regard as the unending stream of concessions they have given to nationalism.
?Unionists feel they?re taking all the pain, and nationalists are getting all the gain,? he said. If the SDLP and Sinn FTin persist in pushing for the full implementation of Patten, McGimpsey warned, ?it could bring the whole thing down.?
Trimble himself has made the same claim. In the wake of the by-election result, he told reporters: ?The main reason we attribute to the loss of this seat is the Patten report and the treatment of the RUC by her majesty?s government. The Ulster Unionist Party will have to reflect on this result. More importantly, the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandelson, will have to address the problems unionists have with Patten.?
Martin Smyth, the former Orange Order head who recently challenged Trimble for the leadership, said that he would have to change course or step down as leader. Last Spring, in his leadership challenge, Smyth achieved 43 percent of the vote even though he entered the contest late and was widely derided as not a serious threat. Agreement supporters now fear that the loss of South Antrim will inspire a more serious move against Trimble.
Both Dublin and London are doing their best to put a ?positive spin? on the result from South Antrim, pointing out that the selection of David Burnside as the UUP candidate did not give the electorate choice between pro-and anti-agreement candidates, since Burnside was also anti-agreement, though less so than the victor, McCrea. The governments also stress that the low turn-out adversely affected the UUP vote. ]
However, both government?s reaIize that these will be seen as makeshift excuses that cannot disguise the fact that a resurgent DUP has seized what was one of the UUP?s safest seats. In private, the Irish government is very gloomy about the prospects of the agreement surviving.
The result leaves Trimble seriously wounded politically. He will be forced to resist any attempt to implement the more contentious recommendations of Patten, including the name-change for the new force, which nationalists regard as essential. He will return to beating the big drum on decommissioning, thus antagonizing republicans. In other words, the further alienation of Sinn FTin is now guaranteed. The SDLP too has already expressed its anxiety warning Mandelson not to back down on Patten. The SDLP?s deputy leader, and deputy first minister in the executive government, Seamus Mallon, has repeatedly stated that the reform of the police is at the core of the agreement and without it nationalists would not give their
support to any new police force.
The British government?s strategy since the Fall of 1999 has been to preserve Trimble?s leadership, even if it meant antagonizing nationalists and republicans. Unfortunately, Trimble?s position has continued to weaken, as pro-agreement supporters within the UUP loose heart and anti-agreement activists are emboldened by the possibility of halting reforms and winning concessions from London.
The ?save-Trimble-at-any-cost? strategy has in a sense, made an attack on him inevitable from within his own ranks. Most likely this will take the form of an attempt to install a temporary ?caretaker? leader, such as Smyth, who will after a year or two make way for a more serious contender, such as Jeffrey Donaldson. But whether events follow this path or not, one thing is certain: in the wake of the loss of South Antrim, the Good Friday agreement is facing its worst crisis, one from which it might not recover.