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Can Trimble Survive?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — As the Ulster Unionist Party’s annual conference looms this weekend, anti-Agreement unionists are keeping up relentless pressure on the UUP leader, David Trimble, to drastically change course and return to a “no guns, no government” policy as the price for remaining in the power-sharing Executive with Sinn Fein.

Meanwhile, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, a fierce opponent of the agreement, has warned that if there was a leadership challenge, “I will not shirk my responsibility.”

Donaldson has been widely touted as Trimble’s “heir apparent.” However, some believe he will not make a blatant leasdership move until after the next British general election.

Donaldson said it was time for the UUP’s officers to call an Ulster Unionist Council meeting to sanction a withdrawal from government with Sinn Fein, without IRA decommissioning.

Even if Trimble survives the weekend unscathed, those within his party who are opposed to his continuing leadership may demand a special meeting of the UUP’s ruling council to force a deadline for decommissioning on the party leader.

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At the last UUC meeting, in May this year, Trimble only won a vote to return to power-sharing with Sinn Fein by a 6 percent margin. Thirty votes would be enough to defeat him.

The Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP is also on the attack. On Monday. It raised a motion of no confidence in Trimble, which while it cannot be put into effect without SDLP support, also makes his hold on the leadership of the UUP more precarious.

There are now few at Stormont who believe that the Executive will survive until Christmas. Either Trimble will resign or be pushed out as UUP leader before then, or his party will pull out of government unless the IRA begins decommissioning.

The anti-agreement wing of the UUP has already secured the 60 signatures required to call a meeting of the policy-making Ulster Unionist Council, probably within a month.

By this time the final shape of the policing legislation currently passing through Westminster will have been decided. Unless the name of the RUC is preserved, then Trimble could by then be in an even weaker position and easier to dislodge as leader.

The underlying concern is that although other political crises have been surmounted, by clever crisis management, the undeniable fact is that grassroots unionism appears to have lost faith in the Good Friday agreement.

Some blame Trimble for failing to defend it robustly enough and point out the positive results of the agreement for unionists, others blame republicans for moving too slowly on decommissioning. Whatever the cause, it appears many unionists who voted “Yes” in the May 1998 referendum have since changed their view.

The DUP motion, to be debated on Monday, simply reads: “This Assembly has no confidence in the first minister.” It cannot succeed in unseating Trimble as it will lack cross-community support. However, the DUP will be able to claim he has lost the confidence of his own party if enough unionists vote for it.

The DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, said: “The effect of the motion, if supported by a majority of Unionists in the assembly, would be to leave David Trimble isolated and with few alternatives other than to resign.

“It will also give those Ulster Unionists who have been whispering treason in the corridors the opportunity to publicly express their private comments. Trimble has reduced politics to the burlesque. He hasn’t the confidence of his own supporters and everybody knows it”.

Trimble’s critics within his own party have been almost as vociferous, especially so since the party lost a 16,000 majority and the South Antrim byelection to the DUP.

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