The three, Jeffrey Donaldson, Martin Smyth and David Burnside, are defying the party leader, David Trimble, in increasingly strident terms and are understood to be planning to call yet another meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in August.
This would force Trimble back to the North from his planned family holiday in Italy and keep the row on the boil right through the summer in their bid to oust the UUP leader and replace him with an opponent of the agreement.
Trimble fought off a “no confidence” vote in his own Upper Bann constituency last Wednesday. He won, though by a smaller margin than his supporters had hoped, 62.5 percent to 37.5. Quoting former U.S. President Harry Truman, he said after the meeting that although it was “hot in the kitchen,” he intended to stay in the kitchen for a long time yet.
Things could get a lot hotter, however. One of Trimble’s staunchest allies, Sir Reg Empey, abstained in last week’s vote on whether to pursue disciplinary action against the three anti-agreement dissident MPs.
Empey explained that this was no pre-emptive strike against the party leader but a signal that he wanted more mediation before steps are taken to punish the three dissidents.
Already, dissidents have gathered the required 60 signatures needed to convene a Ulster Unionist Council meeting. The precise timing of the meeting has not yet been decided, although it may take place next month. This would not allow enough time for the party to suspend or eject the three MPs, meaning they could speak and vote at the meeting.
Other pro-agreement parties are viewing the UUP’s problems with dismay. The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, said that it is time for people to look beyond the UUP and make a real effort to move the process forward.
“We cannot allow the future of the agreement to be devolved to those who are fighting divisively inside the UUP,” he said. “Just as the agreement cannot be fully safeguarded by the ‘saving David’ tactics of the past, neither can we allow David Trimble to be the shock absorber.”
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness called on Trimble to show “leadership” by selling the agreement more enthusiastically. He said he hoped Trimble would emerge triumphant from the current power struggle and he believed Donaldson was unlikely ever to lead the Ulster Unionists.
“It is inconceivable to me that we are going to allow what is effectively a minority within our political equation to dictate the pace of events,” he said.