UUP rift casts shadow over Trimble's efforts to halt decline

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The Independent Online

Diana Peacocke, one of David Trimble's Ulster Unionist candidates in Wednesday's Assembly elections, collared the man who alleged her party branch no longer sang the national anthem at its meetings after he made the remark while leaving the weekly market in Bangor, Co Down, a little town whose residents are mostly Protestant and, therefore, Unionist.

She insisted: "We play it every single time. There was a little bit of a proposal for change but we didn't change; we've stuck to it."

An Orangeman called Wilson Finlay, her quarry, retorted: "I know a certain member of that branch who says you do not sing it."

Mrs Peacocke said: "Well, he is not telling you the right thing. We sing the national anthem every time, we do. I am the chairperson. I am there every meeting."

Mr Finlay decided not to pursue the national anthem theme, instead changing tack to attack her party leader. "Trimble doesn't tell the truth, let's be honest about it," he said. "He did not stick to what he said about not going into government with people while they hold on to guns.

"He has changed all the policies. He just changes them willy-nilly when it suits him."

Anyone watching the exchange in the middle of the street would, by this point, have assumed that Mr Finlay was probably a supporter of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by the Rev Ian Paisley, Mr Trimble's perennial rival for votes.

But when she criticised the DUP he sprang a surprise, his remarks illustrating some of the fissures dividing Unionism. "I'm not a DUP man," he said. "In fact, I've no time for them. I'm an Ulster Unionist, a member of the party, though I don't agree with the policies.

"It pisses me off, to be quite honest with you. This man Trimble, he's a law unto himself. But you'll still be getting my vote. In fact, I'll actually be going out to help the party."

Mrs Peacocke, like her party leader, is in favour of the Good Friday Agreement which has delivered several brief periods of coalition government with Sinn Fein. Mr Finlay is one of the many internal Trimble critics. This illustrates one of the leader's problems: much of his party is against the Agreement, including a number of candidates such as Jeffrey Donaldson. When Mr Trimble implied on a BBC radio phone-in programme that Mr Donaldson supported him, the MP himself rang in to reiterate his opposition.

Within Unionism, such behaviour is not regarded as lack of loyalty but as the exercise of traditional freedom to dissent. Mr Trimble has become very familiar with having to fight on two fronts, not just against Mr Paisley but also against the enemy within.

In the new Assembly, the Ulster Unionists may well have a numerical majority over the Paisleyites, but a central question is whether a Paisley-Donaldson alliance might be strong enough to prevent the formation of a new administration. The hard statistics show that the Ulster Unionists have fared badly at the polls since Mr Trimble became leader in 1995. Since then it has registered its lowest votes in every kind of contest - Westminster, European, local council and Assembly. He used to have nine MPs but now he has six, while Mr Paisley is breathing down his neck with five; far too close for comfort. The DUP's last Westminster and local council results were record highs for the party.

Furthermore, the Paisley lieutenants Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds were among the Assembly's ministerial stars. The leader is now, at 77, said to be more frail than he was, but the party once derided as a one-man band has a strong second-tier, known as the "Duppies". It also has a bevy of young workers, some of them defectors from the Ulster Unionists, who provide a degree of organisational expertise which the UUP appears to lack.

Although the DUP is vehemently anti-Agreement, it took two ministerial positions: adopting the semi-detached approach that it would run departments but boycott cabinet meetings. By doing so, it cleverly left Mr Trimble to do all the heavy lifting and take the flak for doing so.

A key question here is whether that DUP second-tier might at some stage throw off the old "never, never, never" image and contemplate making a deal with the other side. Some think the idea ludicrous; some think it might, in time, come to pass.

After the exchange in the market, Mr Finlay remarked that he thought the DUP would do well in the poll - "unfortunately, because that will take us nowhere either". This is because there has been an unmistakable swing among Unionists away from the Agreement.

The glaring divisions in Unionism generate disenchantment and apathy among some voters. The result is that nationalist turnout can be greater than that on the Protestant side, costing Unionist parties some seats.

Alan Field, an independent Unionist candidate in Bangor, reported finding despair and disillusionment among the electorate: "A lot of the people that I ask aren't going to vote because they're frustrated with the whole system," he said. "A number have asked me what's the point of voting; is there going to be an Assembly; what's going to happen afterwards? They're confused; they're not quite sure what's going on."

Mrs Peacocke also reported a rise in voter apathy: "Some people are saying, 'I voted all my life but I'm not voting this time'. They're just sickened with it - Assembly up down, up down." But no such frustration affected the young woman at the edge of the market. "I don't know what I'm voting for, like," she said with a winning smile. "I don't take much notice of it really. Whatever my mum and dad vote for, I vote for that too." So who would that be? "Probably Paisley."

VOTING, ULSTER STYLE

The elections to the Belfast Assembly which take place on Wednesday will be held under the proportional representation system that has been used in Northern Ireland since the 1970s.

One hundred and eight Assembly members will be elected, six from each of the eighteen Westminster constituencies. The complex counting system means the results are not expected until Friday afternoon.

The central issue is deciding which two parties will emerge as the principal voices of Unionism and nationalism, and whether they will agree jointly to head a government.

If they cut a deal, the leaders of the two largest parties will have the opportunity of standing as first minister and deputy first minister in the Assembly and jointly heading the new administration.

Ten departmental positions will then be divided between the largest parties according to a mathematical formula. The previous administration was led by David Trimble and Mark Durkan of the SDLP. Their parties each headed three departments, with Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley each taking two others.

In the 1998 elections Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionists took 28 seats and Mr Paisley won 20. The nationalist SDLP had 24 and Sinn Fein took 18. The others went to middle-of-the-road parties and to loyalist independents.

The poll is taking place on a Wednesday rather than the traditional Thursdayin order to hold the election as early as possible and to avoid the dark evenings.

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