By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble survived yet another leadership challenge within his party during a meeting Saturday of the Ulster Unionist Conference, the UUP’s governing body.
And yet despite the IRA’s groundbreaking move on arms decommissioning, support for David Trimble has risen by a mere 4 percent over the last three months. At Saturday’s meeting at the Waterfront Hall auditorium, Trimble got 56.1 percent support from the 730 members attending. In October, the last time the UUC met, he got 54.
Nevertheless, the victory will keep Trimble in power until March as well as guarantee that the power-sharing government will continue to function.
The October meeting was about decommissioning, but this time much of the attention shifted to the symbols of British identity, with demands that the word “Royal” be reincorporated into the name of the new police force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Trimble has promised a vigorous and focussed campaign at Westminster to retain British flags and symbolism throughout public life in Northern Ireland. “There is very real concern about the way the [British] government is handling the agreement,” he said.
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The cornerstone of the agreement had been the consent principle, he said, which meant Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom unless a majority voted otherwise.
That being so, he criticized “all shades of nationalism” for trying to “hollow out our membership of the UK.” He also criticized the British government for not upholding the “democratic view.”
While the British could not be partisan, he said, they had a duty to make sure Northern Ireland was a “warm place” for Protestants.
Trimble’s proposal to the meeting included no deadline for arms decommissioning. An opposing motion, from the hard-right MP for South Antrim, David Burnside, would have committed Trimble and other UUP ministers to withdrawing from the All-Ireland, North-South Ministerial Council, by February unless “Royal” was reinstated in the police force’s name and the symbol of the British crown was retained in all courtrooms.
Burnside was supported by Jeffrey Donaldson, the equally hard-line anti-agreement MP for Lagan Valley who is believed to want to become party leader himself.
Trimble was said to be incandescent with rage that the UUC meeting was called at all. He had considered it unnecessary and divisive at a time when the party should be celebrating a victory over IRA decommissioning.
Trimble had even called a meeting of the party’s leaders to try to persuade them to withdraw the demand for the meeting — but was rebuffed. Saturday’s was the ninth meeting of the UUC in three years, when they normally take place only once a year.
After the vote, Trimble said he will now focus on trying to safeguard the British identity in Northern Ireland. One senior Trimble aide said there would be a “price to pay” if the British government did not allow the crown to appear on the badge of the new police service.
“If the British government refuses to listen and doesn’t respect the views of unionists on this, then it will become a very serious problem,” he added.
Trimble focussed in his post-vote press conference on what is being termed unionist “cold place” disaffection with elements of the agreement, particularly those relating to the neutralizing of British symbolism in the police and courts.
The term “cold place” was first used recently by the British Northern Ireland secretary of state, John Reid, in a speech in Liverpool in which he sought to reassure unionists that the agreement should not threaten them.
Accusing Donaldson and Burnside of attacking his leadership, Trimble also said after the vote: “It is actually a leadership issue and it always has been; it has never been anything else. It is a question of tactics and party members are [either] going to trust myself and my colleagues in the assembly party on the tactics or go with the Burnside-Donaldson line.”
Trimble’s own motion, committing the party to achieving devolution and decommissioning without setting a deadline, was not put to the vote following Burnside’s defeat. Twenty-nine people spoke during the debate.
The next confrontation between the rival pro- and anti-agreement wings, one led by Donaldson and Burnside and the other by Trimble and the employment minister, Sir Reg Empey, will take place at the UUC’s AGM on March 9, which is likely to shape up as an another battle royal.
Both the pro- and anti-agreement wings agree that if Trimble is to hold his slim majority together, he must continue to deliver on IRA decommissioning and insist that the Union Flag and crown are used for a range of official purposes.