At the Ulster Unionist Council meeting on 25 March, David Trimble defeated his leadership opponent, the Reverend Martin Smyth. The margin was 457-348, giving Trimble 57% of the vote to Smyth's 43%: clear, but neither comfortable nor decisive.
By Patrick Murphy
Scarcely less important for the future of the Good Friday Agreement, the Council voted 384-338 that there will be no future power-sharing without prior Provisional IRA disarmament, and no Unionist involvement in government unless British policy is reversed and the RUC allowed to retain its name and its traditional Unionist insignia. Trimble's legs as well as his hands are tied. Adhered to rigidly, this alone could wreck any chance of further progress in the current peace process.
The RUC reforms proposed by the Patten Commission upset many Unionists - largely because they were seen as insulting to a force which had defended them from "terrorism" - but were seen as tokenist and inadequate by most nationalists. They are a raw emotional platform on which to rebuild Protestant communal militancy.
Both Ulster Unionist Council votes were about only one thing - the future shape of the Good Friday Agreement. Trimble represented Unionist support for the inclusive powersharing deal and Smyth rejection of all its fundamentals.
How great is the damage to Trimble? There can be no doubt that he has suffered a big blow. He was hoping for 70% support in order to silence his rejectionist wing for good. Since Martin Smyth is not a credible Unionist leader and was touted in the press as a stalking horse we can take his vote to be an index of fairly determined hostility to Trimble's approach. Another challenge in the short term is unlikely, however, as is a Trimble resignation. Much more likely is leadership by a chastened and much more cautious pro-Agreement team.
The prospects for the Agreement, and especially its powersharing Executive, are much more bleak. The issue which finally convinced his opponents to mount a challenge was the suggestion by Trimble, in a speech in Washington, that his party would consider re-entering the Executive without any prior decommissioning. He talked of a clear IRA commitment to decommission and a declaration that the war is over as being sufficient. This crystallised all the recent divisions in the Unionist Party.
On the one hand, their current leadership believes that there is no credible alternative to the way forward hammered out during the peace process and has been prepared to show considerable flexibility and skill in supporting that process. The Washington speech was all of a piece with numerous initiatives in the last two years, the most audacious being the gamble that took Unionists into government with Sinn Fein in the first place.
This has persistently brought them up against a substantial part of their own tradition and party; that section which has always rejected powersharing, will accept only the most minimal reforms in Northern Ireland and wants to end the war by defeating their opponents. Martin Smyth was briefly the flagbearer of that sectarian cause and they have reminded Trimble that they constitute a serious and restraining force in his party. Trimble and his supporters suffered other, perhaps more damaging, wounds at the Council meeting. The real leader of the anti-Trimble faction is Jeffrey Donaldson and he was elected as one of the party's four Vice-Presidents.
For all that, we should not exaggerate the importance of these developments. They don't alter the central fact that Unionism, and Protestant politics generally, are not today what they once were. A striking feature of this latest revolt, for example, is the failure of the anti-Agreement forces to grow significantly. The original vote against the Good Friday Agreement suggested that over 40% of Unionists were opposed. This was confirmed in the Assembly elections in June 1998 and there has been a sizeable group of rejectionists in both the Westminster and Assembly Unionist groups. In November 1999 when Trimble proposed to enter the Executive with Sinn Fein he won the support of 58% of the Unionist Council against the opposition of 42%. In essence it was a gamble that failed.
Two major things have occurred since that day and both of them should have strongly bolstered the hard-line Unionists. First, the IRA failed to deliver any progress on decommissioning, and second, the Government insisted that the Patten commission recommendations will be implemented in full. When, after all that, Trimble offers to repeat the experiment and is challenged on that basis by a senior Unionist MP it might be expected that Unionist doubters would have had enough.
The hard-liners used to the full the link with the Orange Order. There are 850 members on the Unionist Council and 120 of them are delegates from the Orange Order. Their votes were cast effectively as a block, it seems, under the command of the current Grand Master, Robert Saulter. The vote for Smyth suggests no real progress for the rejectionists.
But this is little comfort to Trimble and co. The theory was that once up and running the return of "real politics" to Northern Ireland would expose the bankruptcy of the "No" camp for what it was and their support would shrink. Somewhat unrealistically, Trimble seemed to expect that to happen this time.
Despite the media hype it is pretty much as you were within Unionism, which has been deeply divided about the new departure of 1998 from the start. For the Agreement the outlook is gloomier. It depends on the simultaneous shifts in both Unionism and Republicanism. It was hard to see how it would be re-activated even before these events. The flip side of Trimble's rejectionist problem is the ongoing battle in the Republican movement and the idea that Gerry Adams will find it easier dealing with a leader hemmed in and threatened by a newly assertive "No" camp now seems very fanciful.
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