Rivals launch campaign for Ulster Unionist leadership

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The Independent Online

Rival candidates in the Ulster Unionist leadership contest were today launching their campaigns to persuade rank-and-file party members to support them.

Party leader David Trimble and his challenger, South Belfast MP the Rev Martin Smyth, were due to hold press conferences in Belfast to persuade members to support them in tomorrow's vote at the Ulster Unionist Council.

Earlier today Mr Smyth received a boost when his successor as Grand Master of the Orange Order today declared his support for him.

Robert Saulters, who succeeded the South Belfast MP as the head of the order in 1997, recommended that all Orange delegates at the Ulster Unionist Council should endorse Mr Smyth in tomorrow's secret ballot.

He said: "He has been a very stable man in his past days and as Grand Master in the Institution, he came at a very serious time in Northern Ireland and he kept the Orange leadership and all the Orange members in tow at that time.

"I think Martin is a very strong man. He says he's going to do a thing, he'll do it.

"There is so much bickering and uneasiness within the unionist council, the Rev Martin Smyth is giving them the opportunity to decide which they want to go," he told BBC Radio Ulster.

Mr Trimble was defiant yesterday in the face of the leadership challenge by Mr Smyth, saying he trusted delegates in the council would endorse a continuation of party policy.

The Upper Bann MP said it was the 68-year-old MP's prerogative to challenge him but he hoped that whoever emerged victorious would be allowed to lead a united party.

Describing the contest as a "clear the air" vote, he said his opponent needed to "explain to people clearly what the objective is and what policy is being pursued".

However, Mr Smyth insisted he would offer "a more vigorous promotion of Ulster Unionist policies" as leader and insisted the Ulster Unionists could not go into a power-sharing government with any other party that had an armed wing.

He added: "I'm not a stalking horse. I have no real desire to be leader of a party.

"But on the other hand if a call comes from the party through this vote on Saturday then I'm prepared to serve the party and the people."

Mr Trimble has received the backing of several prominent figures in the party including deputy leader John Taylor, Westminster colleague Ken Maginnis, party chairman Lord Rogan and Assembly allies Michael McGimpsey and Dermot Nesbitt.

However, as well as Mr Saulters, Mr Smyth's campaign has been endorsed by Lagan Valley MP, Jeffrey Donaldson and former party leader Lord Molyneaux of Killead, who has been critical of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Donaldson said he had "counselled against a leadership contest" but understood the frustration which had forced the South Belfast MP to challenge Mr Trimble.

"It is a frustration which is shared by many in the unionist community and a vote for Martin Smyth on Saturday will be a clear warning to the Government and to republicans that unionists have given enough.

"I hope that once this contest is over, we as a party can get back to the task of achieving a consensus on a firm and decisive policy on the crucial issues, including the need for immediate decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons."

Mr Trimble said today he had not spoken to Mr Smyth since he issued his leadership challenge but he was not the sort of person to "bear grudges".

The Upper Bann MP said he was not reading too much significance into the leadership bid, saying it was known that there was a section of the party against the Good Friday Agreement and that his challenger was one of those people.

"I think this was coming anyway. It might have come last year and in fact, we were half expecting last year," he told BBC Radio Ulster.

"It's not surprising. It comes back to the Agreement and the attitude to the Agreement and indeed, maybe even, you can trace it through to before the Agreement.

"So I think this was coming and it's part of the whole question of change, generation change within the party and is part of the way in which the party is renewing itself at the moment and some people aren't comfortable with that."

Ulster Unionist security spokesman Ken Maginnis said Mr Trimble would win tomorrow's vote - and deserved to do so.

"David Trimble has taken Unionism and Unionist philosophy into the national and international arena and won arguments for the first time in my political life," he said.

"The territorial claim has gone during his leadership period, the unconstitutionality of the Anglo-Irish Agreement has been proven, and it has been set aside, he has won the argument in terms of how we cannot enter into government with pseudo-politicians who are subservient to terrorist army councils, in other words Sinn Fein/IRA, until disarmament has occurred.

"All those are constructive arguments won in the largest public arena," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

Those who opposed Mr Trimble's commitment to the Good Friday Agreement were looking backwards, he went on.

"These people want to take us back into some sort of introverted scenario that really will do nothing for Unionism. It's fearfulness, it's lack of courage, I believe.

"Why would anybody pull us back into internecine strife within the party? That's what I fail to understand," he added.

Delegates will also consider tomorrow a motion linking any return to a power-sharing executive featuring Sinn Fein with the retention of the names and symbols of the RUC.