By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — An emergency meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council is now expected within a month to seal the fate of its party leader, David Trimble, and ultimately the survival or otherwise of the Good Friday agreement.
Trimble began a spirited fight-back against the growing anti-Good Friday agreement lobby within his own party at the UUP annual conference on Saturday, but some believe it is too little, too late, and his leadership days are numbered.
Trimble also had to defend himself against a DUP resolution of no confidence in his position of first minister in the Assembly. His party won the vote by 52 votes to 26, a 2-to-1 victory over the Rev. Ian Paisley-led party.
On Saturday, for the first time in months, Trimble gave a speech in which he robustly defended the agreement and its benefits for unionism. He also rounded on his critics, accusing them of undermining his leadership and damaging the party.
Dissident anti-agreement Ulster Unionist Jeffrey Donaldson had pledged not to challenge Trimble for the party leadership, at least in the short-term, but he insists he wants the UUP to pull out of the Executive if the IRA refuses to give up its weapons.
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"If I was leader of a party split down the middle, in the electoral mess the unionist part is in at the moment, I would want to see what I could do to rebuild the party rather than push ahead with policy that is failing," Donaldson said.
Despite Donaldson’s denial of leadership ambitions, UUP sources anticipate a contest shortly after the anti-agreement wing succeeds in forcing a withdrawal from the Executive, as Trimble would find it too difficult to carry on after his strategy has been defeated.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern met in London on Tuesday to assess the looming crisis. Ahern sent ripples of concern through SDLP and Sinn Fein ranks when he said on Sunday during an RTE interview that it might be necessary to make concessions on policing to save Trimble.
On Saturday, in a speech peppered with heckling, Trimble threw down the gauntlet to anti-agreement unionists, challenging them to give their alternative. He also said, however, that there must be IRA decommissioning within three months.
At the end of his speech, he got a brief, and somewhat halfhearted, ovation lasting less than a minute as about a third of the audience remained in their seats, stony-faced and determined to show their opposition.
He turned much of his anger on those within his own party who are waging a rearguard action to unseat him as leader, accusing them of undermining the party and bad-mouthing its Assembly representatives.
"I wish some people would respect the mandate of the Ulster Unionist Council," he said. "There are policy differences in the DUP, in the SDLP and in Sinn Fein. They keep them to themselves, so should we."
Trimble also attacked anti-Agreement candidates in recent by-elections, saying that those who had gone to the people seeking votes on a pro-agreement ticket had done well. This was a criticism of David Burnside (the anti-agreement UUP candidate in the recent South Antrim by-election, which the party lost in a resounding victory for the DUP).
The choice the party has before it is simple, he said. "We can draw nationalism and republicanism into a consensus or we can be governed by London with Dublin interference, deprived of a voice, deprived of a vote, deprived of a veto," he said.
"We are looking carefully at every aspect of our participation under the agreement. Hitherto we have worked proactively in the North South Council. I see that being more problematic now," he said.
On decommissioning, Trimble said: "John Taylor [deputy leader] has said we should give republicans three months to prove their good faith on weapons. I understand his point. But I think three months is too long."
During a stormy debate in the run-up to the no-confidence vote, Trimble fiercely defended himself against accusations from the DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, of "corrupting democracy." Robinson had launched a scathing attack on Trimble, accusing him of doing greater damage to the union than any other figure in history.
"He has ushered corruption into the very heart of government and has then sought to conceal his betrayal," Robinson said.