Trimble avoids leadership defeat

David Trimble yesterday bought himself more time as he won 60 per cent of the vote in a contest against two almost totally unknown opponents.

David Trimble yesterday bought himself more time as he won 60 per cent of the vote in a contest against two almost totally unknown opponents.

His vote was some percentage points higher than the level of support he has got in repeated challenges over recent years. This means he may have some room for manoeuvre as he attempts to rebuild a party which was decisively overtaken by the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists in last year's Belfast Assembly elections. Mr Trimble gained 448 votes while David Hoey and Robert Oliver received 162 and 132 votes respectively. The Trimble leadership also scored another modest success when Trimble loyalist Lord Rogan displaced the Rev Martin Smyth as party president.

At the same time the 40 per cent support for his two obscure opponents signals that the party remains deeply divided. One grassroots delegate, John Cairns, said he would be considering leaving the party, declaring: "We need a cosmetic change. We are not going to be able to sell Trimble - he's dead in the water."

Mr Trimble said he was delighted with the result, and with Mr Hoey's announcement that he would no longer oppose his leadership. "I look forward to the party becoming settled," Mr Trimble said. "To repeat a phrase I have used on other occasions this does represent the settled will of the party."

Referring to Mr Hoey's comment, he said: "We know that there are differences and different views on policy and matters of that nature and this is a party which does conduct debates. The important thing, having had a debate, is to move forward."

The Democratic Unionists have moved to the fore in recent political activity, having 33 Assembly seats to Mr Trimble's 24. The party sent a strong team to the US for the recent St Patrick's Day celebrations, encouraging those who hope for an eventual deal between the Paisleyites and Sinn Fein.

As a result of this the Ulster Unionists have to some extent been sidelined, since they lack the numbers to make a deal without the DUP.

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