Trimble faces down heckling party rebels

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The Independent Online

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionists' leader, yesterday delivered an unusually strong rebuff to opponents in his party wanting him to pull out of Northern Ireland's fledgling cross-community executive.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionists' leader, yesterday delivered an unusually strong rebuff to opponents in his party wanting him to pull out of Northern Ireland's fledgling cross-community executive.

But although he received a standing ovation from most at the Unionists' annual conference in Belfast, deep and apparently irreconcilable div- isions were on show. Speakers for and against the Good Friday Agreement were bitterly heckled, with anti-Trimble elements in particular getting a barracking from those opposed to the accord. At least three-quarters of the audience were cheering Mr Trimble but there were boos and hisses too.

A number of people including his leading challenger, Jeffrey Donaldson MP, pointedly refused to join in the ovation. Mr Donaldson and his allies are hoping to overturn the Trimble policy within weeks at a meeting of the party's ruling council.

Mr Trimble acknowledged that the recent South Antrim by-election result, in which his party lost a Westminster seat to a Paisleyite candidate, was a setback. "It's a pity that some had to rush into public attacks and simplistic responses. People talk about electoral meltdown, but a return to the failed tactics of yesteryear is not the answer. The electorate will not forgive if Unionism is marginalised again," he said.

There was loud applause when Mr Trimble told his critics: "Stop undermining the party. Stop undermining democratic decisions made by your party. Stop running to the media and bad-mouthing your assembly team."

Mr Donaldson declined the advice, telling the media: "I wasn't impressed. I heard nothing new on decommissioning - we haven't heard what our party is going to do to press for it."

Jean Coulter, a hardline Unionist, said people would not have voted for the Agreement had they known that Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness would be a member of the new government. She told a heckler "you should go and join the shinners" [Sinn Fein]. The heckler replied that she should join Paisley's DUP.

One of Mr Trimble's supporters, Raymond Ferguson, said he had been told by a militant republican that he could not believe how many gains Mr Trimble had secured in the Good Friday negotiations. Mr Ferguson said they should not throw away advances "in favour of something that nobody has been able to articulate".

A critic of the Agreement accused some members of "holding out the white flag of surrender" to republicans.

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