By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The Ulster Unionist Council has delivered a possibly crippling blow to the peace process by refusing to give its leader, David Trimble, a convincing victory over a hardline anti-agreement opponent and by tying his hands over the issue of policing.
Trimble failed to win a clear endorsement of his handling of the peace process Saturday, retaining his leadership by only 109 votes. He garnered 457 votes (56.7 percent), while his challenger, Rev. Martin Smyth, a long-standing opponent of the Good Friday agreement, got 348 (43.3).
Meeting at the King’s Hall, the Council also voted in favor of making retention of the Royal Ulster Constabulary name and symbols a pre-condition for the party’s involvement in any future devolved government. The RUC’s name is due to be changed under reforms recommended in the Patten Report.
The RUC motion was passed despite an attempt by Trimble to amend it, to commit the party to vigorously defending its name. His amendment was defeated narrowly — 53 percent to 47.
Trimble said the result demonstrated "the depths of the concern and the passionate feeling" about the government’s plans to reform policing. One member of the Council said it had been "absolute madness" to endorse it personally when it was likely to fail.
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Although reporters were skeptical, at his post-Council press conference, Trimble insisted he was not "shattered" and he did not think he was "shackled" by the defeat of his amendment on the RUC.
Earlier, Trimble had said he hoped the leadership poll would clear the air. The result has done anything but. In fact, Trimble loyalist Michael McGimpsey described the outcome as a "split within the party."
"Certainly, we would have liked it to have been much more comfortable," he said. "But this is a period of extreme tension, nerves and worry for the party and there would have been an element of a protest vote."
An ebullient Smyth, who had only launched his campaign a few days before the vote, said he had challenged Trimble in order to test the mood of the party. "Mr. Trimble must now tell us how he is going to unify not only the Council, but the party and the country and, beyond that, unionist voters who have been deserting our party in droves."
He told the UUP leader that he can no longer afford to ignore the views of his Westminster colleagues if he wants to avoid another leadership contest. Smyth did not rule out another possible challenge, either by him or another, with some believing another move against Trimble could come this autumn.
Smyth accused Trimble of making too many concessions to republicans. He criticized his comments, made in the U.S. during St. Patrick’s Day, in which he said he could envision reentering a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein before IRA arms decommissioning provided guarantees were given by the IRA that they would hand over arms.
The British prime minister’s office welcomed Trimble’s reelection. A spokesman for Tony Blair refused to comment on the size of the victory margin.
Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson, meanwhile, said that while the concerns of what he described as a "significant minority" of the party could not be ignored, they would not have a veto on future progress.
He had harsh words, however, for the party’s vote on the RUC, saying it would come to regret using the name of the RUC as a "political football." This infuriated anti-agreement unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who called Mandelson a "blow in."
In a furious outburst on Sunday, putative-leader Donaldson warned Mandelson that he could not order the UUP about. The party’s deputy leader, John Taylor, called Mandelson’s comments "disgraceful and despicable."
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, expressed its concern at the outcome of the meeting, and called on Mandelson to prevent unionists from further undermining the agreement.
"There is no doubt that the peace process has been further damaged by the votes taken and the further preconditions added to the process," Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey said. "The peace process is now totally paralyzed and it’s up to the Secretary of State to tell the UUP that it cannot dictate or prevent the implementation of the agreement."
The 43 percent support Smyth received was virtually identical to the 42 percent who voted in November against going into a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein without a prior IRA weapons hand-over.
Many followed Donaldson’s advice, who counseled UUC members to vote tactically for Smyth as "a clear warning to the government and republicans that unionists had given enough." Donaldson reportedly punched the air inside the hall in delight when the result was announced.
There were also calls in the hall of "resign, resign" following the vote announcement, although there is no sign of that. Trimble responded to the suggestions dismissively: "Don’t hold your breath."
The RUC motion was passed unanimously after the Trimble amendment was defeated. Taylor, who backed Trimble in the leadership vote, broke with his leader to support the new precondition proposed by London-based PR consultant and hardliner David Burnside.
The present RUC chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, and his immediate predecessor, Sir John Hermon, both opposed the Burnside resolution. Chris Patten, chairman of the independent commission that recommended policing reforms, warned that the UUP could come to regret their vote.
The deputy leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, called on the pro-agreement element of the UUP to split from the party. Mallon said almost two unionist parties now existed under one name and that one of them would eventually destroy the other.
"There is a total contradiction between the Trimble position and the position adopted yesterday," he said. "They are not compatible. I think there is a split there. I don’t think there is going to be a healing of that split under the present leadership or in terms of the working of the agreement."