Trimble's party could crumble, adviser warns

Ireland Correspondent,David McKittrick
Saturday 20 December 2003 01:00
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A close supporter of David Trimble has warned that his Ulster Unionist Party could self-destruct if it does not pull itself together in the wake of the resignation of rebel MP Jeffrey Donaldson. Although the party has avoided controversial comment on the Donaldson departure, Alex Kane, who has been an adviser to Mr Trimble, fears for its future.

The decision of Mr Donaldson to quit, and probably join the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, has changed the balance of Unionist politics.

Mr Kane, a moderate, said yesterday: "The party has maybe four to six months in which it can tackle its difficulties. If the party remains unreformed, if the Ulster Union's Council remains uncontrollable, then I think within a year the party will cease to exist."

The DUP beat the Ulster Unionists in last month's Assembly election to become the largest Northern Ireland party.

The Donaldson departure, together with that of two other Assembly members, is a serious if not entirely unexpected blow to the Ulster Unionists, who now represent a much-depleted political force. Some welcomed the move, preferring him to be outside the party tent rather than inside.

They said they were glad to be rid of a disruptive element who had repeatedly forced crisis meetings to challenge the Trimble line in favour of the Good Friday Agreement. Their hope is that the party can now present a less divided image.

Mr Donaldson said yesterday that resignation had been the only honourable course for him, because he had been faced with an ultimatum to support party policy. He said he he wanted change, and added: "Could I secure that change by continuing what has become a very acrimonious debate within the UUP which could only get more divisive if there are moves to expel me from the party?"

The DUP have offered him a place on the party's negotiating team which is expected to take part in talks with the Government and others in the new year. The party will be glad to welcome Mr Donaldson and the other two dissidents on board, since it will extend the party's lead over Mr Trimble in the newly-elected Assembly.

Assuming voting arrangements remain as they are, and a new deal is made - both of which are by no means certain - the new arithmetic would hugely benefit the DUP.

As things stand, the party would expect to take the position of First Minister as well as taking charge of four of the 10 Assembly departments. But the moment Mr Donaldson joins, the DUP will instantly overtake the UUP in Westminster seats, holding six to the UUP's five. Two of the remaining five, MPs David Burnside and the Rev Martin Smyth, are opposed to the Trimble line.

Mr Donaldson said he had messages of support from many sections of his former party, but it remains to be seen whether individuals or branches will follow him.

At meetings of the party's 900-strong Ulster Unionist Council, anti-Trimble motions proposed by Mr Donaldson often received more than 400 votes. Joining the DUP would be a culture shock for Mr Donaldson since he has devoted five years to open criticism of the Trimble leadership. In the DUP, criticism of Mr Paisley is strictly forbidden.

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