A severe shock was delivered to the peace process yesterday when the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble received an unexpectedly low vote in a leadership challenge from a member of his party's hardline old guard.
His opponent, 68-year-old Rev Martin Smyth, surprised the Trimble camp by taking 43 per cent of the vote. Mr Trimble's disconcertingly narrow margin of victory, by 457 votes to 348, was seen an unmistakable sign that he is not in full control of his party.
His authority as leader was immediately further undercut when delegates rejected his plea not to link re-entering government with a demand for retaining the name of the RUC.
They voted by 384 votes to 338 in favour of refusing to go back into a devolved administration unless the Government reverses its intention of renaming the RUC as part of a policing reform package. Mr Trimble had argued that this would "shackle" him in negotiations.
This pre-condition, together with the uncomfortably close leadership result, is seen as severely limiting the Unionist leader's room for manoeuvre in the testing months ahead when attempts will be made to find a way past the arms de-commissioning impasse.
Mr Trimble said: "There was a major push by people who are essentially anti-agreement. There was a serious leadership challenge but it has not succeeded."
The Trimble camp had hoped for at least 60 per cent of the votes cast by the Ulster Unionist Council. Instead Mr Trimble has been given an uncertain mandate and exposed as vulnerable to another leadership challenge.
This might well be triggered if he presses ahead with the idea, which he recently floated in Washington, for again going into government with Sinn Fein in advance of weapons de-commissioning.
London, Dublin and most of the other participants in the peace process would regard his departure as a potentially fatal blow to the process, in that most of his potential successors are opponents of the Good Friday agreement.
They will feel they have little choice but to soldier on with attempts to revive a process which was already in a poor state of repair. But yesterday's result was without doubt another disheartening setback to all concerned.
Downing Street welcomed Mr Trimble's victory, a spokesman commenting: "The Prime Minister is on record as saying what a high regard he holds Mr Trimble in."
The Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson called on republicans to come up with urgent confidence-building proposals. Saying a significant minority of the party had concerns, he added: "They cannot be ignored, but nor do they have a veto on future progress. So we press on, but we're listening."
Mr Trimble's challenger Martin Smyth was more circumspect. Asked whether Mr Trimble should resign, he replied: "He will have to assess that. I am sure there are people assessing it in different ways. It is not for me to make that judgement."Reuse content