Trimble defiant as poll defeat casts shadow over peace process

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The Independent Online

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, said yesterday it was essential that the Northern Ireland peace process was not blown off course as he tried to brush off the bruising South Antrim by-election defeat.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, said yesterday it was essential that the Northern Ireland peace process was not blown off course as he tried to brush off the bruising South Antrim by-election defeat.

The UUP lost South Antrim, its second safest seat, to the Rev William McCrea - the gospel-singing candidate for the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party - by 882 votes. The result, which shocked many in the province when it was announced early yesterday, led Mr Paisley to claim that the Good Friday Agreement - and with it David Trimble - was now finished.

"I think Mr Trimble is finished, absolutely finished," he said. "This province is not going to bow to Gerry Adams, or to Dublin or to Blair or Ahern or Trimble. The writing is on the wall for Trimble now. He must go and go quickly."

Mr Paisley's outburst may have been typical of him, but the result has certainly put Mr Trimble under intense pressure. Already having to lead a party seriously divided oversharing power with Sinn Fein, this setback could see him forced to fight another leadership election within weeks.

Yesterday, in typically defiant mood, Mr Trimble said: "We've had a setback but we are not quitters. We knew this was not going to be easy. We're deeply disappointed we did not do better but we don't give up."

While the UUP candidate, David Burnside, was favourite, many observers felt that his campaign in the party's first real electoral test since the Stormont institutions were set up, was flawed. While Mr McCrea made it absolutely clear he was opposed to the Agreement, which has seen the likes of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuiness elected to Stormont, Mr Burnside tried to ignore the issue, or at best give no fixed position. Earlier in the week, he told The Independent he was "extremely sceptical" of it.

Mr Trimble and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, may try to claim that as the turn-out was so low - just 44 per cent - it was not truly representative of the mood of the Protestant community. However, some observers were also quick to point out that not only was Mr McCrea an outsider candidate who had been parachuted in to fight the by-election but that the DUP had not contested South Antrim for 17 years.

Mr Trimble sought to blame the result on widespread unhappiness with the Police Bill - to be debated by the House of Lords next month - which many feel has moved too far from the original recommendations of Chris Patten's review of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Mr Trimble will have to fight to hang on to his authority in the party. Earlier this year, the Rev Martin Smyth - who is against the Good Friday Agreement - took 43 per cent of the vote in a leadership contest, and the First Minister is aware he may soon be facing another challenge.

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