Hardliners step aside for Trimble

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The Ulster Unionist party yesterday formally re-elected David Trimble as its leader, setting the scene for a summer which may be marked by turbulence in politics as well as on the streets.

Mr Trimble was re-elected unopposed, with hardline leadership contenders such as Jeffrey Donaldson holding off for the moment. The feeling is still widespread throughout the party, however, that Mr Trimble will probably step aside by the end of the year.

Although he is staying on as party leader, Mr Trimble has said he will resign as Northern Ireland's First Minister if the IRA has not moved on arms decommissioning by 1 July. This appears inevitable in the absence of some significant IRA move.

The divisions within the party were starkly on show as the Rev Martin Smyth MP, a constant critic of Mr Trimble who challenged him for the leadership last year, was elected as its new president.

Mr Smyth, who is opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, said before the meeting: "There is no peace process, there has been a political process which was in a sense a con game ... Unfortunately, we within the Ulster Unionist community have been the suckers."

Mr Donaldson, who some thought might have put himself forward for the leadership, said anyone challenging Mr Trimble would only play into the hands of republicans. But he served notice that both Mr Trimble's position and his policies would remain under scrutiny when he said the party would have to take stock at the end of the summer.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said yesterday: "We are in a crisis." Accusing Mr Trimble of being "determined to resign", he said this would be an act of political cowardice and an abdication of responsibility. He said a settlement of the arms issue "won't be achieved by threats, ultimatums or deadlines from David Trimble".

Speaking at yesterday's meeting, Mr Trimble repeated his threat to resign, saying: "We all know what should happen. Weapons should be made permanently unusable, permanently unavailable. We also know what parties are in default; it is the paramilitaries, Loyalist and Republican."

In a stinging attack on the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party, which captured a number of Ulster Unionist seats in the general election, Mr Trimble declared: "We know which party simply cynically exploits the issue. Out of one side of its mouth it berates us for the lack of progress, while out of the other side it tells Sinn Fein it does not have to do anything and anyway decommissioning is not the priority."

He said his resignation as First Minister would not automatically collapse the assembly but give parties time to "save it from the consequences of Sinn Fein's failure" to decommission. The resignation would leave six weeks for more negotiations before the assembly would be suspended or fresh elections held.