Knives out as Trimble battles to save peace process

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The Independent Online

The Ulster Unionist Party assembles for its annual conference in Belfast today with the knives openly out both for its leader, David Trimble, and his policy of taking part in an executive with Sinn Fein.

The Ulster Unionist Party assembles for its annual conference in Belfast today with the knives openly out both for its leader, David Trimble, and his policy of taking part in an executive with Sinn Fein.

The conference is expected to mark the opening push of the faction opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, which hopes to pull the party's ministers out of the cross-community executive formed earlier this year.

Although the conference agenda has been arranged to offer little scope for a head-on confrontation between the pro- and anti-Trimble elements, both sides will be carefully watching for signs of the party's mood.

The anti-Agreement camp is asking for a special meeting of the party's ruling council within the next month, in the hope of pushing through a motion that would leave Mr Trimble with little or no scope for remaining in the executive.

If this does not work, he may face a challenge when the party stages its annual reelection of a leader in March. In the meantime, the gloves are off, with members of the two factions openly attacking each other in television and radio debates.

The anti-Agreement elements have been emboldened by the party's disastrous showing in last month's South Antrim by-election, when it lost the traditionally safe Westminster seat to the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. They argue that Mr Trimble's approach is being rejected by Protestant voters.

Since the by-election, Mr Trimble has pushed for concessions in policing and other areas to strengthen his position against the dissidents. Both factions recognise that there has been a serious loss of Protestant approval for the Agreement, which will be hard to reverse.

The additional fear among party activists is that the DUP could capture enough seats in the general election to claim it has taken over as the principal representative of Unionism.

There is speculation that Mr Trimble may harden up his position to the point of threatening to resign as First Minister unless there is speedy decommissioning of IRA arms. Worse still would be his departure a party leader, as his probable successor, Jeffrey Donaldson - who describes himself as anti-Agreement - is considered unlikely to take over as First Minister. A Trimble defeat would most likely bring down the Agreement.

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