The methods used by the party hierarchy to take disciplinary action against three anti-agreement MPs, who had defied his leadership, was ruled unlawful by Belfast high court on Monday, reinstating them within the party.
This is particularly embarrassing for Trimble — by career a constitutional lawyer and former law lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast — and it came at a particularly difficult time for his leadership.
On Tuesday, he faced a vote of no confidence in his own backyard, the Ulster Unionist constituency party in Upper Bann, while County Derry Orangemen have voted to oppose his refusal to reject the Irish/British Joint Declaration on the way forward.
Waiting in the wings to pick up the political pieces is the Rev. Ian Paisley-led Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the Good Friday agreement. On Monday, Paisley predicted there will be no assembly elections in Northern Ireland until June 2004.
Paisley also said that not only would the IRA have to disband, but Sinn Fein itself would have to cease to exist before he would have any dealings with republicans.
At a public meeting in Dublin, Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said republicans had to understand the problems being faced by the Ulster Unionists and the British government.
Republicans need to cut Britain and the Ulster Unionists “some slack,” he said, while Britain and Dublin need to cut republicans slack. “This may be difficult for republicans to do, but it what has got to be done to preserve the process.”
Speaking about the internal UUP power struggle, McLaughlin said: “It is in all our interests to be dealing with a strong unionist leadership. A fragmented leadership makes it even more difficult to negotiate with the UUP.”
The latest blow to Trimble’s leadership came on Monday in Belfast High Court. The UUP vice president, Jeffrey Donaldson, the party president, the Rev. Martin Smyth and MP David Burnside succeeded in overturning their suspensions.
They had resigned the party whip at Westminster after failing to convince the Ulster Unionist Council to reject the Joint Declaration outright. The party had suspended them pending a full disciplinary hearing.
Justice Paul Girvan said the suspension was invalid because the disciplinary committee set up by the Ulster Unionist Party officers to hear their case had been “improperly constituted” by co-options taken when some of its members stood down.
The court said the suspensions were “draconian” and unprecedented and that the disciplinary committee that had ordered them was incapable of making any future legal ruling on the three MPs’ cases.