On Saturday, the UUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister, David Trimble, agreed a compromise at the 11th hour with party hardliners, who oppose the 1988 Good Friday peace agreement. Though this saved his leadership, it also means that he is hostage to a deadline a little more than four months away.
At a meeting of the UUP’s ruling council, called by the anti-agreement faction headed by MP Jeffrey Donaldson, Trimble faced a resolution demanding an immediate end to its involvement in the North-South Ministerial Council, to be followed up by graduated sanctions against Sinn Fein.
Trimble himself proposed three months of talks, to be followed by another Ulster Unionist Council meeting, at which all UUP ministers would be ordered to withdraw from the Executive if the IRA has not disbanded.
During Saturday’s meeting, Trimble and Donaldson agreed to merge their two proposals, setting a deadline of Jan. 18, 2003 for the UUP to decide whether to pull its ministers, thus collapsing the Executive.
Trimble told reporters that the party unanimously adopted this course. The compromise motion is being seen as a means for Trimble to keep his leadership while Donaldson’s harder line is adopted, thus suiting them both.
Trimble denied that by moving toward Donaldson’s position he becomes a prisoner to party hardliners. “We are both wearing our own clothes and we are both wearing the party’s policy,” he insisted.
“The Ulster Unionist Party won today and the people of Northern Ireland won today because the people of Northern Ireland now, as a result of this, can see the added spur on the paramilitaries to complete the transition,” he said.
Pressed by reporters to say precisely what the Sinn Fein leadership would have to do to avoid meltdown, Trimble admitted there is a “distinct possibility” that his party would be outside any devolved government before the May 2003 assembly elections. This would suit his party, as it could argue that it had pulled the plug on power sharing with republicans in its fight for votes with the harder line DUP, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley.
Asked if the resolution meant that if the IRA has not disarmed and ceased to exist by Jan. 18, the UUP will no longer be in government, Trimble replied, “By the 18th of January, if we don’t see the transition is complete, which involves these things, then, yes, we will be out of office.
“Parties will have to consider where they go then, but the way to fix this now is to complete that transition,” he said. “There has been some progress, but this summer the progress stopped and started to regress and it is for that reason it has been necessary for us to stop and take this action.
“My hunch is, knowing the republican movement, that they will push us through that date to see if we really mean it. Well, I can tell them that we do really mean it.”
The UUP, he said, is “fed up” with republicans’ failure to act on violence and the British government’s failure to hold Sinn Fein to account.
Trimble said the first action if republicans fail to comply would be an immediate end to participation in North-South Ministerial Council meetings in which Sinn Fein is involved, although the UUP would attend meetings with SDLP ministers.
Donaldson said the IRA must “disappear” before his party will consider sharing power with Sinn F