Trimble launches counter-offensive as pressure mounts

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The Independent Online

The next bout in the continuing struggle for the direction of Unionism takes place in the Northern Ireland Assembly today with a Paisleyite attack on the policies of the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble.

The next bout in the continuing struggle for the direction of Unionism takes place in the Northern Ireland Assembly today with a Paisleyite attack on the policies of the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble.

Although the Democratic Unionist Party's no-confidence motion stands no chance of success, the UUP leader's opponents hope it will inflict some damage on Mr Trimble as he faces a critical few weeks.

While the DUP represents his sharpest external opponents, Mr Trimble's key battle will take place within his own party, either at the end of this month or in early November. His critics hope that a special meeting of the party's ruling council will force him to leave the present governing coalition, which includes Sinn Fein.

The party's annual conference was an ill-tempered affair that starkly exposed the political and personal divisions within its ranks. There was bitter heckling from both those who support the Good Friday Agreement and those who oppose it.

Although Mr Trimble received a standing ovation, some senior party members, including Jeffrey Donaldson and William Ross, pointedly kept to their seats. Over the next few weeks they will hope to pull the party out of government, a move that could lead to the resignation of Mr Trimble. Mr Trimble took a new tack on Saturday with an attack on the critics and a spirited defence of his own record. This represents a departure in that he has often been criticised for projecting his own reservations about the Agreement rather than a wholehearted belief in its philosophy.

Now, however, the gloves are off on both sides, with Mr Trimble and associates such as Ken Maginnis taking the fight to the anti-Agreement elements. Mr Maginnis said at the weekend: "These people are selfish opportunists who don't know what they actually want but are determined nobody else will get there before them."

Mr Donaldson said in reply: "Ken Maginnis's speech was the most disgraceful speech I have ever heard at any party conference. People were appalled. It was a disgraceful slur against the Unionist party."

Tony Blair is to meet the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, at Downing Street tomorrow to discuss the sense of impending crisis in the peace process.

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