The meeting is expected to take place tomorrow and will hear arguments that two of the three MPs who resigned the party whip at Westminster on Monday have broken internal party rules.
Some believe the rebellion in the ranks marks the beginning of the end of the eight-year Trimble leadership. Others predict that he will survive. And some believe there will be a realignment within Unionism to the detriment of the peace process.
As the dissidents launched their challenge, Trimble hastily canceled a meeting with the taoiseach in Dublin and instead traveled to London for emergency talks with British officials at Downing Street.
This led Sinn Fein’s chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, to claim that the anti-agreement wing of the UUP was already succeeding in setting the agenda. He appealed to Trimble to act robustly and use the mandate from his party’s ruling council meeting on June 16 to defend the agreement.
The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, told both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists to “practice what they preach” and said it was no wonder people were fed up with politicians when both parties attacked each other.
One of the dissidents, Jeffrey Donaldson, is a UUP vice president, while another, the Rev. Martin Smyth, is party president. The third House of Commons rebel is the South Antrim MP David Burnside. They are supported by the former party leader Jim Molyneaux, a member of the House of Lords.
In a letter, Trimble argued that as officers of the council they are obliged by the party’s constitution “to implement the decisions of the council.” He said it is impossible for the president and a vice president to resign the whip and still retain those offices.
“I take it, therefore, that, to be consistent, your resignations also apply to those offices,” Trimble wrote in a stinging reply to the challengers’ letter resigning the party whip.
They had been disloyal, he argued, “to the whole character, objectives and leadership of Ulster Unionism.”
“Resignation would clearly be their principled course of action,” Trimble said. “I can only assume that the authors recognize and intend this outcome, but merely wish to place on the rest of the party the task of tidying up the situation.”
The resultant disciplinary action could be long, drawn out and end up in the courts, with the anti-agreement camp waging a war of attrition against Trimble.
The response came after the most serious challenge to Trimble’s leadership. At a well-organized news conference in central Belfast, the dissidents insisted there had to be a realignment within unionism.
The four men, who have long been opponents of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, are also firmly opposed to the Joint Declaration drawn up by the British and Irish governments to implement the agreement.
The MPs said they would begin discussions with the DUP and UK Unionist Party MP Robert McCartney, pressing for fresh negotiations, which they said are needed “to produce a form of accountable local administration which has unionist and nationalist consent.”
They accused Trimble of allowing the UUP to negotiate in “a weak and dysfunctional state” and branded the decision of the Ulster Unionist Council 10 days ago not to endorse rejecting the joint declaration as “a new low for unionism.”
“It is clear that the leadership of our party does not represent, and cannot speak for, a growing majority of unionists and has comprehensively failed to address their concerns,” the dissidents said. “These people need a voice and we will work with other unionists of a like mind in Parliament to ensure that their views are properly represented and their concerns adequately addressed.”
In defense of Trimble, David McNarry, who works for the UUP leader, said Donaldson was trying “to save face” and seek cover in the move, which “highlights the weakness of his credibility.”