Hardliner with a past in battle for Ulster

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Today's Westminster by-election in the Northern Ireland seat of South Antrim has become elevated from a routine contest into a potentially deadly test of the Good Friday Agreement.

Today's Westminster by-election in the Northern Ireland seat of South Antrim has become elevated from a routine contest into a potentially deadly test of the Good Friday Agreement.

The stakes are so high that some commentators predict that a Paisleyite victory could even begin the unravelling of the entire peace process.

The man providing most of the colour in an otherwise colourless constituency is David Burnside, who is well known for two very different reasons. Within Unionism he is known as a hardliner whose position has of late become more blurred. In British terms, however, he is primarily associated with British Airways' so-called dirty tricks campaign against Richard Branson's Virgin airline in the early 1990s. He left his job as BA's head of public relations shortly afterwards.

Now he is candidate for David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party whose MP, Clifford Forsythe, recently died. He is favourite to win, but he is facing a strong challenge from the the Rev William McCrea, of the Democratic Unionist Party, a former MP and gospel singer.

South Antrim is so solidly Protestant and Unionist thatduring the time of the Stormont parliament no election took place for more than 40 years - the Ulster Unionist candidate was returned unopposed. But that was in the days when Unionism was a monolith; today it is riven by deep divisions and uncertainty.

Everyone knows where Mr McCrea stands: he wants to bring down the Agreement and end the peace process. But when The Independent asked Mr Burnside whether he supported the Agreement, his answer began, "That question is superficial", and darted off into a discussion which touched on just wars, policing, prisoners, accountability and other matters.

It lasted 4 minutes and 13 seconds and did not answer the question. In its clearest moment he said he was "extremely sceptical" about the Agreement. The ambiguity is deliberate. Mr Trimble's party is split down the middle on the Agreement, and some of those close to him have a sinking suspicion that anti-Agreement sentiment is on the increase.

Campaigners in South Antrim categorise voters in terms such as "strong yeses" and "weak noes". To win, Mr Burnside has to convince yeses and noes to vote for him. In electoral terms his stance makes sense, though there is a risk in that many Unionists are alienated by dissembling.

If he wins Mr Burnside will immediately become a principal player in Unionism and is likely, within a few years, to be seen as a candidate for the leadership. This is partly because the party's upper reaches do not contain a galaxy of talent.

Although Mr Trimble has been actively campaigning for him, everyone knows the party leader would have preferred a candidate with more faith in the Good Friday Agreement. He will welcome Mr Burnside's election in much the same way as William Hague welcomed Michael Portillo's return.

Mr Burnside's political career began - as did Mr Trimble's - in the early 1970s in the hardline Vanguard party, under a leader, William Craig, who used to make fearsome speeches about liquidating the enemy. When Mr Craig unexpectedly softened his line and advocated bringing nationalists into government, both Mr Burnside and Mr Trimble endorsed the idea. As a result, all three were expelled from the Unionist mainstream.

Mr Burnside moved to London, where his reputation of a tough operator in politics extended into business with the BA/Virgin affair, which proved costly to BA both in legal costs and in terms of its reputation. Mr Burnside says now: "It was tough and competitive. I never did anything illegal and we had every right in defending the interests of our company."

Since then he has run a successful public relations business in London, though the recent republication of a book, Dirty Tricks, will refresh memories of a period BA would prefer to forget.

In politics he associated with the Tory right, some of whom have stood by him in this campaign, with Lord Tebbit and Lord Cranborne sending messages of support.

He is also remembered for obtaining and leaking to The Times, some years ago, a sensitive document at a crucial moment in the peace process. John Major, who was Prime Minister at the time, described it as "malign behaviour".

All this has left Mr Burnside with a reputation for being hard, ruthless and unsmiling. But if he should lose today's contest, there will be few smiles from supporters of the peace process.