By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — A meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party’s ruling council once again looms after 60 rank-and-file members signed the required petition, thus outflanking their party leader, David Trimble.
Sept. 21 will see yet another potentially damaging and divisive showdown between the pro- and anti-Good Friday agreement wings of the UUP after the hardliners took the initiative and compiled the needed signatures.
The move wrong-footed Trimble, who had been intending to call a meeting for “consultative” purposes. Instead, he was forced onto the defensive by those hostile to both the agreement and his leadership.
“Others have charged in” he said, explaining he had wanted consultation instead of the confrontation that is now likely. The UUP right wing was jubilant that it had won the initiative, with the MP for South Antrim, David Burnside, calling for the agreement’s complete renegotiation.
Burnside said it is his belief that Sinn Fein should be kept out of power-sharing with Unionists until the IRA is disbanded. Fellow hardliner Jeffrey Donaldson said the UUP should “restore a firm bottom line”.
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Both Burnside and Donaldson also won another victory on Friday. As well as forcing the upcoming meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, they also won a dispensation from party rules barring them from running in the May 2003 assembly elections. The sole proviso is that they must agree to do the work of both an MP and assembly member and abide by party policy.
It means that, should the two get elected, they could form an alternative focus within the increasingly important UUP assembly party against the agreement. This group is regarded as Trimble’s internal power base.
Donaldson said it is his view that the British prime minister, Tony Blair, had betrayed Unionists by breaking the pledges on non-violence he made before the 1998 referendum on the agreement.
Senior UUP figures are furious that the anti-agreement plotters met last week to plan strategy. Several have said that the Sept. 21 meeting is “madness” so soon before an election campaign.
James Cooper, the UUP chairman, said policy should be left to the leader and that “party in-fighting” must stop. He wants to see UUP focus on the elections and fears the meeting will turn into a personality attack on Trimble.
The UUP leader himself hit back at the hardliners, describing them as “so-called anti-agreement” politicians.
“Devolution is here and will continue to function,” Trimble said. “I cannot think, actually, there is any serious doubt about that. There are parties in Northern Ireland who sometimes describe themselves as anti-agreement, but the truth of the matter is all are fully involved in the operation of the institutions — even if they have not got the courage to say so.
“Whatever noises offstage you might hear from time to time, the truth of the matter is that so-called anti-agreement elements are fully committed and full participants in the arrangements and do not pose a serious threat — except possibly through their own incompetence.”
The Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP, however, far from being mollified by the prospect of a tougher line from the Ulster Unionists, has offered a resolution calling for the early dissolution of the assembly and elections to be held this autumn instead of in May next year.
The DUP says the agreement has the consent now of only a minority of unionists and that the majority must prevail. Paisley, now 70, says he intends to run again in the Assembly elections.
“The majority is a minority by the rules of this Assembly and the republican minority are a majority,” he said. “This cannot work. It has to be removed and we must get a democratic basis for the institutions to be able to stand up.”
The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, poured scorn on the DUP’s attempts to renegotiate the agreement, saying the dissidents are “living in cloud cuckoo land.”
“Let’s be clear,” he said, “the SDLP will not be party to any attempt to undo any of the hard-won principles and precepts of the agreement. Its inclusive structures, cross-community protections, equality and human rights guarantees, North/South structures and East/West links were all approved by the Irish people.
“The SDLP will not be party to any attempt to diminish or dilute them. The DUP are kidding themselves if they think otherwise. We are determined to stand by it.”
Debate will likely intensify over the next two weeks within the UUP over demands from hardliners that the party withdraw from the executive if Sinn Fein is not expelled from government by London first.
Trimble has brushed aside suggestions that his leadership is again under challenge from the “No” camp and remains confident he will get enough backing for his policy at the UUC meeting, possibly by means of an amendment to the hardliners’ motion.
Sinn Fein’s national chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin, said the latest attempts to secure the party’s exclusion from the executive amounted to the “same old refrain” from Unionism, and offered no alternative.
“We have been over this ground many times before and nothing has changed except that no name has been attached to this latest move,” he said. “Sinn FTin has no influence over who leads the Ulster Unionists, but we are committed to this process and will work with whoever is the Ulster Unionist leader be that David Trimble or someone else.”