By Jack Holland and Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble has threatened to expel two party dissidents who are refusing to support his bid to be reelected as first minister of the power-sharing executive in Stormont, reliable sources have disclosed.
The threats to Peter Weir and Pauline Armitage are part of the frantic efforts being mounted to swing the party behind him in the wake of last week’s IRA decommissioning move. The assembly vote will be taken on Friday, Nov. 2.
Weir has already been removed as the party whip.
It is also reported that Trimble has almost given up on Weir, who is bitter about his deselection by the UUP as the party’s candidate for North Down in this year’s general election. Trimble supporters believe that Armitage, while saying she is “not for turning,” is still open to persuasion.
Trimble is confronted by a block of 28 anti-agreement unionists, including 20 members of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. If Armitage is persuaded to side with the party leadership, it would give Trimble 27 supporters within his own party. It is likely that the two representatives of the pro-agreement Progressive Unionist Party would also vote for his reelection. This would give Trimble 29 votes. However, if Weir sides with the anti-agreement block, the vote would be even.
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Since he needs a majority of Unionists to get reelected, his bid would fail, precipitating either a further suspension or a general election. At best, it is hoped that Weir might abstain.
Trimble is apparently pressuring the dissidents by asking them if they want to be responsible for bringing about an election that could see Sinn Fein winning a majority of nationalist seats in the assembly. This would mean Sinn Fein would nominate a member for the post of deputy first minister, a development that would be anathema to Unionists of all shades of political opinion.
The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition may even redesignate itself as “unionist” in a technical (and some would say cynical) move so Trimble can be reelected on the cross-community rule that requires him to get 50 percent unionist support.
Weir and Armitage met the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning on Monday to try to obtain more details about what quantities of weapons the IRA put “beyond use” last week and how it was done.
They say they are doubtful about the IRA’s sincerity in decommissioning some of its weapons.
Even if he surmounts this hurdle, Trimble faces yet another challenge next month, after the required 60 signatures were gathered to demand a full meeting of his party’s ruling council.
Hard-liners within the 850-strong Ulster Unionist Council want the meeting held on Nov. 17 to query whether their party leader should remain in the Executive with Sinn Fein, even after IRA decommissioning.
Speaking after the UUP executive meeting, Trimble said, “The stakes are high, the margin I dare say might be narrow, but it’s been narrow before and in the famous words of Harold Wilson, one vote is enough.”
Meanwhile, it’s becoming clear that there are also problems facing the Sinn Fein leadership as deep concerns emerge within the republican rank-and-file over the IRA’s move on decommissioning. An emergency meeting of the Sinn Fein executive was reportedly held in Navan, Co. Meath, last week to assess the new situation.
“This move has hit a raw nerve among many good and genuine republicans,” Sinn FTin’s president, Gerry Adams, said. “Contrary to some reports, the republican base was not ready for a move by the IRA.
“True patriotism requires courage and vision. But it also involves self-sacrifice and an ability to endure a lot. Most republicans understand this and have experienced deprivations during lifetimes in struggle, but many see little reason for the IRA’s move, given the state of the political process at this time.”