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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Analysis: Trimble's challenge

After Margaret Thatcher miraculously escaped an IRA bomb at Brighton, her attackers infamously said that to succeed, they only had to be lucky once - she had to be lucky all the time.

The same could be said of David Trimble and his challengers.

Those who continually call Ulster Unionist Council meetings in a bid to topple the leader know that eventually his luck may run out.

And so the anti-Agreement camp is seeking a special meeting of the 860-strong UUC next month.

Ostensibly, the meeting is about forcing an end to power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

Davd Trimble: Ulster Unionist Party leader
David Trimble: Fighting another battle to maintain leadership of the UUP

But it is also about removing David Trimble as leader.

Without majority support, 50% plus, for his policies, Mr Trimble's leadership would be finished.

So far, he has managed to survive a number of key votes at special meetings of the Ulster Unionists.

Back in April 1998, the first key test of his leadership came when he asked his party to sign up to the Good Friday Agreement.

He sailed through with 72% support. Since then, his support base has shrunk, with only a few minor recoveries.

Sanctions

The slide was evident in November 1999 when he asked the party to back power-sharing with Sinn Fein without IRA weapons up front.

His vote was 58%.

The following March, it was barely 57% in a leadership challenge by Martin Smyth, MP for South Belfast.

In May 2000, Mr Trimble's base had dropped to an all-time low of 53% when he led the party back to power-sharing with Sinn Fein after a brief suspension of the institutions.

In October, his support was just 54% for continued power-sharing - but with sanctions on Sinn Fein ministers.

Even when the IRA finally started to decommission, Mr Trimble's position only recovered slightly. He won backing of 56% last December for continued power-sharing.

The only real test of his support since then has been a party executive meeting in June when he easily saw off a challenge to power-sharing from anti-Agreement MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

Traditionally the 100-strong executive has supported the leader and is seen as a good barometer of opinion within the party. If it backed the leader then the UUC did the same.

Jeffrey Donalsdon: Anti-Agreement unionist
Jeffrey Donaldson: Previous challenge defeated

The vote was three to one against pulling out of power-sharing.

So what makes the anti-Agreement camp think they can win this time?

They simply think the Ulster Unionist Party has run out of patience with David Trimble's policies - which are not only aimed at securing devolution but also complete decommissioning and eventual disbandment of the IRA.

The difficulty is that the IRA is being seen to be getting away with ceasefire breaches, and unionists are incensed at allegations of a break-in at Castlereagh police centre, allegations of gun-running in Colombia and on-going street violence at interface areas.

The Ulster Unionist Party is also deeply anxious about the forthcoming assembly elections which could see the DUP make further gains at its expense.

'Confident'

Anti-Agreement unionists may be judging that even within the pro-Agreement camp, there's a fear that Mr Trimble may not be the best person to lead them into the next election.

They say he lacks interpersonal skills, charisma, star quality, call it what you like.

The UUP suffered its worst electoral losses under Mr Trimble's leadership at the general election last year when it lost five of its seats, three going to the DUP.

But, in Mr Trimble's favour, is a certain resentment among some Ulster Unionists that the No-camp is embarking on a path that is going to destroy the party, that the continued use of UUC meetings to try to entrap Mr Trimble is counter-productive.

Mr Trimble, according to his supporters, still has a number of aces up his sleeve.

"He's confident. He's bullish," said one.

However, Mr Trimble must personally be feeling dejected that he's once again on the defensive, whatever his supporters say.

Sir Reg Empey: Ulster Unionist Party
Sir Reg Empey: Unwilling to challenge the party leader

And so far, there's been no rush of unionist cheerleaders onto the airwaves to defend him.

And it is still possible that Downing Street - despite a view in some circles that it will ultimately be counter-productive - may try to assist him by appointing a kind of ceasefire auditor to monitor breaches.

But perhaps the biggest weapon in Mr Trimble's arsenal is the absence of an alternative policy or alternative leader.

What will the No-camp do if they pull down power-sharing?

How will they achieve stability?

How will they prevent London drawing closer to Dublin?

How will they stop nationalists voting for Sinn Fein in ever greater numbers?

Those are some of the questions that Mr Trimble is posing.

The other question that his opponents must be asking themselves too is whether there is an alternative leader who is willing to face a difficult election with perhaps just months to prepare.

The Assembly elections are after all set for next May.

Sir Reg Empey might be a possible contender - but so far he's shown no willingness to wield the knife.

And there is a view that Mr Donaldson can't win a majority.

Whatever happens next month, the divisions in the Ulster Unionist Party will once again be laid bare.

Hardly a victory for either side, in the mouth of an election. As the Tories, and old Labour proved, voters don't like divided parties.

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis

Analysis

Background

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

TALKING POINT

AUDIO VIDEO
See also:

28 Aug 02 | N Ireland
09 Aug 02 | N Ireland
25 Jul 02 | N Ireland
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