Upper Bann MP David Trimble last night pulled off a surprise victory to become the new leader of the Ulster Unionist party, Northern Ireland's largest political grouping.
The outcome is seen as having ominous implications for the Irish peace process, since Mr Trimble was the most trenchantly right-wing candidate before the more than 800 delegates of the Ulster Unionist Council. The immediate reading was that the party had taken a lurch to the right and was sending out the signal that it was in no mood for compromise and negotiation.
The election went to three counts, with Mr Trimble finally scoring 466 votes compared to 333 cast for Strangford MP John Taylor, who had all along been seen as strong favourite in the contest. In the first round Mr Trimble led with 287 and Mr Taylor had 226, with Ken Maginnis on 117, William Ross on 116 and the Rev Martin Smyth on 60. In the second round, Mr Trimble had 353 and Mr Taylor 255. At this point Mr Maginnis withdrew, his vote having fallen to 110. The performance of Mr Maginnis, who was seen as standard-bearer of the party's liberal wing, will come as a major disappointment to both London and Dublin, who had been hopeful of some sign of a move towards a less uncompromising unionism.
Instead, Mr Trimble's win can only be interpreted as a move in the opposite direction. Always on the right of the party, his hardline image was heavily emphasised in July when he played a major part in insisting that an Orange march be allowed through a Catholic part of his constituency in Portadown, Co Armagh.
When missiles were thrown at the RUC on that occasion he described the incidents as insignificant. He was televised at the time linking hands in a victory celebration with the Rev Ian Paisley, another factor which emphasised his opposition to compromise.
In his victory speech to delegates he made no mention of seeking a new accommodation, or of making unionism more attractive to a wider constituency. Instead, he stressed the maintenance of the union, declaring that he would ensure "that our democratic birthright as equal citizens within the United Kingdom is recovered and preserved for ourselves and for the future".
Sinn Fein's president. Gerry Adams, said the new Ulster Unionist leader would have the greatest responsibility borne by any unionist in 70 years. He said: "He faces the daunting challenge of leading his party and its constituency out of the political trenches and into a new rapprochement with the rest of the people of this island.
"What is required is courage and vision. The Unionist people are part of what we are."
The outcome of the contest will be greeted with private dismay in London and Dublin and indeed in most non-unionist quarters, since Mr Trimble has never given any sign that he could be the man to lead unionism into a new accommodation.
An MP for five years, he was the youngest of the candidates. He was formerly a law lecturer at Queen's University, Belfast. He hesitated before announcing his candidature, saying he had decided to run because of support from the grassroots and from London newspapers.
He told a news conference that his decision to run had been influenced by complimentary editorials in the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Asked if he would take part in round-table talks with Sinn Fein, he replied: "No, not at this stage."
He has often expressed distrust of both the British and Irish governments. He said last week: "One small change but crucial change I would make - I would never go into Downing Street alone. You've got to have someone else with you to take notes, to observe and to listen carefully, because one must be careful not to be seduced."Reuse content