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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 19:26 GMT
Battle for the heart of unionism intensifies
The angry scuffles at the Northern Ireland Assembly, following the election of a first and deputy first minister, have shown the divisions between unionism to be deeper than ever.

BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy says the battle to lead a united unionist front shows no sign of abating.

"Traitor" and "cheater" were just some of the words used to abuse the newly elected Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble by opponents of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Democratic Unionist Party's assembly team, furious they had failed to stop Tuesday's assembly proceedings, turned their ire on their fellow unionists, as Mr Trimble left the chamber to give a news conference in the Parliament's great hall.

It is not the first time the DUP, or its supporters, have engaged in such tactics.


Another battle has been lost for anti-Agreement unionism, but the DUP-led war against the Agreement goes on

Just a few months ago, Mr Trimble and his wife, Daphne, were jostled by DUP supporters in Banbridge as they left the general election count.

Again, it was after a close count, where the anti-Agreement wing of unionism felt cheated.

That sense of being cheated was palpable on Tuesday, in sharp contrast to the mood only days ago.

Just last week, when two Ulster Unionist assembly members sided with the DUP against their leader, the DUP members were jubilant.

Strutting into the assembly, their smiles stretched wide across their faces at the thought of denying Mr Trimble and his pro-Agreement allies the first and deputy first ministership.

'New alliances'

Tuesday was another battle lost for anti-Agreement unionism.

But the DUP-led war against the Agreement goes on.

And as long as it does, it threatens the dominance of the Ulster Unionist leader, his party and the Agreement itself.

David Trimble
David Trimble: Re-elected as NI First Minister

There is no question that the Good Friday Agreement fundamentally altered relationships within unionism.

No longer could the Ulster Unionist leader be counted on as the DUP ally against nationalism, or more particularly, Sinn Fein.

The Agreement forged a new order. If it was to work, Ulster Unionists had to form new alliances.

Compromise

Almost overnight, Ulster Unionists - some of whom were slow to realise this - were now the enemies of the DUP.

Their new friends were now the SDLP, Sinn Fein, Alliance, PUP, and Women's Coalition.

The reason was clear.

These new friends had the same interests, nurturing the Agreement they had all created.

United, they could form a powerful alliance against the DUP's efforts to destroy their compromise.

But the problem of course was that the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, did not immediately view Sinn Fein as an ally.

The Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein remained an "enemy within the process" as long as the IRA failed to begin its process of decommissioning.


The DUP believes the Agreement's fundamental promise of equality for nationalism is further endangering the union

And that process - which began last month - has allowed Mr Trimble to regroup, to strengthen his place in the "yes" camp.

The DUP's battle is with all the pro-Agreement players.

However, a more particular battle is ongoing with Mr Trimble because his party is directly competing with the DUP for votes.

The nature of the Agreement dictates that it requires majority unionist and nationalist backing.

As long as the Ulster Unionists can claim to represent the majority of unionists, the Agreement can survive.

If the DUP gets the upper hand, the Agreement's future comes into jeopardy.

Weakest link

And so the DUP goal - more than ever before - is to discredit the Ulster Unionist Party.

The crisis in unionism comes fundamentally from the tensions over the Agreement.

The DUP refuses to accept the changes brought by the Agreement.

The party has also rejected David Trimble's argument that accommodating the growing number of nationalists is the best way to maintain the union, and to blunt the demand for a united Ireland.

Rather the DUP believes its fundamental promise of equality for nationalism, cross-border bodies, and the inclusion of Sinn Fein in power-sharing is further endangering the union - and is more likely to lead to a united Ireland.

Ian Paisley DUP leader
Ian Paisley: Has called for fresh assembly elections

There is a long history of division and suspicion within unionism.

The words "Lundy" and "traitor" are often thrown at those who dare to dissent from traditional ideology.

It is quite understandable. If the old strategy of "not an inch" unionism is to survive, it is only as strong as its perceived "weakest link".

From the DUP viewpoint, Mr Trimble is now the weakest link.

Mr Trimble knows he has only 18 months to regroup and to restore unionist confidence in his leadership and in the Agreement.

Turmoil

He expressed his hopes of doing just that at an Ireland Fund of Great Britain dinner in London just hours after his re-election as first minister.

"We have to address those (unionist) concerns so that when we come - as we will in 18 months time - to the major electoral test, we will be in a position to say 'this is working'," he said.

Equally, the DUP will spend the next 18 months trying to prove him wrong.

And so the battle within unionism is destined to continue, even descend into greater turmoil.

This is bound to continue - at least until there is a clear winner.

In the meantime, that battle will continue to cause instability within the institutions and the Agreement.

The degree of instability depends on how united Mr Trimble and his pro-Agreement allies stay.


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See also:

19 Oct 01 | Northern Ireland
Still time for progress says Reid
25 Jul 01 | Northern Ireland
A package of possibilities?
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