David Timble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, suffered a significant legal setback yesterday in his efforts to discipline three of his enemies within his divided party.
A High Court judge in Belfast declared the suspension of the three rebel MPs to be invalid, saying that "the rules of basic fairness" were broken when Mr Trimble engineered their suspension from the party.
The Trimble move was draconian and unprecedented, the judge said. The judgment was hailed as a victory by Jeffrey Donaldson, who with fellow-MPs David Burnside and the Rev Martin Smyth, had taken the legal action after being suspended from the party last month. Mr Donaldson declared: "Justice has been done."
The result of the action is an important blow to Mr Trimble's efforts to discipline the rebellious faction which for several years has been waging an internecine battle against him.
He has been viewed as acting with unusual alacrity in moving to suspend the MPs, and had even been obliquely complimented for doing so by Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. Because the party hierarchy includes many lawyers, not least Mr Trimble, most observers assumed the campaign against the dissidents had been legally fire-proofed.
And the Ulster Unionist leader faces yet another challenge tonight when a motion of no-confidence is to be brought in his Westminster constituency of Upper Bann. His supporters say he should see off the challenge, winning around two-thirds of the votes.
A disciplinary hearing is scheduled against the three MPs this month, but yesterday's judgment has strengthened their hand in their tussle with the party leadership. They resigned the party whip at Westminster after losing an important vote to Mr Trimble.
The judgment appears to mean the disciplinary moves against them will not stand against another legal challenge, meaning the Trimble camp may have to find another way to handle the dissidents.
The terms of yesterday's judgment were unmistakably in favour of the Donaldson camp, which, in effect, means the leadership will have to go back to the drawing board. Yesterday there was talk that Mr Trimble's "door is open" for discussions with his opponents, yet the battle lines are so firmly drawn and there is so much poison in the political air, that any chance of reconciliation between the factions seems remote.
Mr Justice Paul Girvan yesterday described their suspension as invalid because the party disciplinary committee was improperly constituted. He said the involvement of one member of the committee could be questioned because he was already involved in a motion of no confidence against Mr Donaldson. He said the conduct of the case "would lead an objective observer to doubt the committee's capacity to conduct a dispassionate investigation and to arrive at an unbiased decision".
Mr Donaldson later attacked Mr Trimble: "The problem arises out of his policy, his leadership and the direction he is trying to give, which is flawed, just as his judgement on this issue was flawed."
James Cooper, the party chairman and a Trimble supporter, said: "We cannot have a party that is subject to continual relentless assault from within. There has been an attack on the leadership through the courts. They have won this but they have not solved the problem in the party. They are in a minority yet they insist on carrying on the fight."