Donaldson's future in doubt after Trimble survives crucial vote

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The Independent Online

The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble fended off the latest in a series of internal challenges last night, leaving his principal rival pondering on whether to leave the party.

Although Mr Trimble won just 54 per cent of the vote of his party's ruling Council, his victory was much in line with previous decisions of a grouping which has for years been split on his leadership and policies.

The result was seen as a setback for his rival Jeffrey Donaldson, who had insisted on calling the meeting in an attempt to have the Trimble approach rejected.

Instead, several weeks of arguments by Mr Donaldson for a new approach produced no significant swing of opinion within the party. Last night Mr Trimble wore a broad smile while his rival was grim-faced, saying he would take some time to consider his options.

Mr Donaldson had previously said he would consider his party membership if the Council fudged on the motion he placed before it. Last night he described the vote as a Pyrrhic victory for Mr Trimble.

He accused the party of prevaricating on principle. He said he would face a motion of no-confidence in his Lagan Valley constituency, after which he would decide on his future. He declared: "For five years I have tried to persuade this party that those principles are worth something but perhaps my energies would be better employed in other ways."

Mr Trimble appealed to him to stay, saying: "I would like him to conclude that the only course to follow is to remain and to support the policies of the party. I would dearly love Jeffrey to consider that as being the only way forward."

Donaldson's departure from the party would raise the possibility of realignments within Unionism. The UUP has always been the largest Protestant party, but at the moment it is being pressed hard by Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists. Mr Donaldson has spoken of closer cooperation between the two parties, leading to speculation that he envisages linking up with the Paisleyites.