The declaration was issued in April in the wake of the IRA?s failure to respond satisfactorily to the governments? demand to cease all paramilitary activity. It spelled out a list of concessions — notably, allowing wanted paramilitary activists to return home and normalization measures which would reduce the British military presence in Northern Ireland to pre-conflict levels of approximately 5,000 troops.
Donaldson seized on a proposal that among those troops who would be no longer needed would be the home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, which replaced the Ulster Defense Regiment in 1992. Unionists feel deeply about the fate of UDR and the RIR, and Donaldson hoped he could exploit that sense of betrayal to swing the party against Trimble. But the British quickly qualified their proposal and made it clear that some elements of normalization were still far down the line. They would not be implemented until the IRA responded to the Joint Declaration with a convincing ?act of completion? — i.e. , went out of business for good.
The anti-agreement faction was forced to turn their attack into an all-out assault on the Joint Declaration, demanding that the Unionist Party reject it outright. On Monday, that assault failed, disastrously for Donaldson. But Trimble and the pro-agreement majority within the party have been badly shaken. This is just the latest in a long series of challenges to them and has raised questions about the overall future of the Unionist Party.
During the run-up to the meeting, Donaldson had threatened to leave the UUP. If he had done so, it would have caused the biggest split in the party since 1974, when the former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner left it to form his own Unionist party in the wake of the collapse of the first power-sharing experiment.
It is extremely doubtful if mainstream Ulster Unionism would have survived such a development. Donaldson no doubt realized this.
?I am not interested in splinter groups. I am not interested in dividing Unionism,? he told the BBC after the vote on Monday. Many of his colleagues will surely see the irony in this, since they accuse Donaldson of sponsoring a divisive debate within Unionism just at the time when attention had been focused on difficulties within the republican movement.
Most observers agree that Donaldson?s biggest mistake was to threaten to leave the party. Unionism is as keenly aware of the history of splitting as is republicanism. Even Donaldson?s supporters were dismayed when he threatened he would walk out of the party if the vote went against him.
?The threat caused him real problems,? according to a source close to the unionist leadership. It was a foolish move from any point of view. It would have left him with only two options, neither of which was realistic. The first was to form his own party and the second was to try to join the DUP. The record of new Unionist parties has been abysmal. Since the Rev. Ian Paisley formed his in 1971, not one has managed to make significant inroads into the Unionist Party vote. It is also doubtful if ambitious politicians such as David Burnside, the anti-agreement MP for South Antrim, would have a welcome or a place in the rigidly controlled DUP, where the struggle to succeed Paisley is already well under way.
Donaldson?s threat to split and his subsequent backing down have probably ended forever his ambitions to lead the party. No one will take seriously any further attempts by Donaldson to replace Trimble. Meanwhile, Trimble can feel satisfaction in the knowledge that he has seen off the most dangerous threat to his leadership, and one that was launched at a time most calculated to do him maximum damage.
However, good the result for the pro-agreement Unionists, considering the sensitive issues that were involved, it is not good enough for them to be blithely confident that this will be the last battle with their anti-agreement colleagues. Unionism, like Republicanism, was born out of conflict. Like Republicanism, it is finding it difficult to redefine itself to meet the needs of a post-conflict situation. But unless it does, and quickly, the next time it gets involved in a fight with itself, it may well score a knockout.