Unionists sent bogus letter from Sinn Fein

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The Independent Online
THE BATTLE for the heart of unionism descended yesterday from the dignified to the acrid yesterday as David Trimble accused his opponents of waging "a cheap dirty tricks campaign" against him.

The Ulster Unionist leader linked a bogus letter sent to party members with reportedly intimidatory protests aimed at him and his associates as they prepare for tomorrow's crucial meeting of the Ulster Unionist council. That meeting will be asked to endorse the plan thatemerged from Mr Trimble's talks with the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.

The fake letter, sent to some council members, purported to come from Mr Adams.

It said: "You know in your hearts that Britain wants out of the North of Ireland as soon as possible. Sinn Fein would urge you to vote in favour of the Mitchell Deal. By doing so we can move forward together to build a new prosperous Ireland."

Mr Trimble said those who had sent the letter had access to lists of party members, though he suspected people outside the party were responsible. Sinn Fein described the letter as an amateur attempt to muddy the waters which had all the hallmarks of the anti-Trimble unionists, who it said were "determined to stoop to any level to undermine him."

The Rev William McCrea of the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party said of the letter: "I have absolutely no knowledge of any letter. I haven't, neither have my colleagues, got the party list of the Ulster Unionist council. It could very well be that some of the `yes' members did it. I know very well they're beginning to panic."

Anti-deal campaigners were also accused of a physical attack on one of Mr Trimble's close associates, Dermot Nesbitt. He said he was punched in the small of the back while attending a Unionist meeting in Newcastle, Co Down. Two of his car's tyres were let down in the incident, during which he was given a police escort.

Such incidents are by no means an unknown phenomenon within unionism. At times of high tension, supporters of accommodation with the republicans have often experienced jostling and worse when political dispute has spilled over from Orange halls into dark car parks.

Most observers are now predicting that Mr Trimble will prevail at Saturday's key meeting, though opinions differ on whether he will do so handsomely or by an uncomfortably small majority.

A defeat for Mr Trimble would stop the peace process in its tracks, at least temporarily. For this reason those who support the Good Friday Agreement are doing what they can to offer support in the run-up to Saturday's vote.

This even extends, for the moment at least, to Sinn Fein, which is clearly anxious to do nothing to make life more difficult for the Unionist leader. One veteran observer commented: "Suddenly it seems everybody's an honorary Unionist, even Gerry Adams."

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, speaking in a similarly supportive vein, declared: "My message to Unionists today is this. Put aside the fear of failure. Present the face of progressive, tolerant, confident unionism. The prize is no less than the future of Northern Ireland. Grasp it and you will find out if republicans are for real. Reject it and you will never know."