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Last Updated: Monday, 23 June, 2003, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Trimble's credibility 'on the line'

By Mark Devenport
BBC NI political editor

A week, as they say, is a long time in politics.

One week ago, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson was publicly questioning whether the Ulster Unionist Party, to which he has belonged for more than 20 years, continued to represent his views.

Martin Smyth, David Burnside and Jeffrey Donaldson quit party whip

Now Mr Donaldson is vowing to remain within the party whilst fighting his corner against party leader David Trimble.

That about-face lays Mr Donaldson open to charges of being the "Clare Short" of Northern Ireland politics, making threats to resign which he has not carried through.

However, the option the Lagan Valley MP has picked could cause just as many headaches for his leader as a straight resignation.

Mr Donaldson's sceptical views on the recent British Irish joint declaration and the peace process in general are shared by his fellow MPs David Burnside and the Reverend Martin Smyth.

All three are now refusing to recognise the party's whip at Westminster.

On a day-to-day basis, this might make little difference. The sceptics have tended to operate as a party within a party at Westminster in any case.

The decentralised nature of the Ulster Unionist Party makes it hard for the leadership to take action against rebels

They inhabit different rooms to their leader, and rarely feel constrained to vote in the same lobby as their three colleagues.

However, if they officially inform parliament of their intentions, the MPs' decision will relegate the Ulster Unionists in the official pecking order at Westminster.

Moreover, two MPs, David Burnside and Martin Smyth, made it clear that they believe their leader should step down.

Certainly, whichever way you look at it, Mr Trimble's credibility is now on the line.

In response, the Ulster Unionists' former assembly members, the section of the party most loyal to Mr Trimble, has hit back.

'Civil war'

They have accused the three dissident MPs of refusing to abide by democratic decisions of the party's ruling council and treating council delegates with contempt.

The decentralised nature of the Ulster Unionist Party makes it hard for the leadership to take action against rebels.

But Trimble allies are pledging to fight back, suggesting that it would be absurd for the MPs to hold high office (Martin Smyth is the party president) whilst unilaterally declaring their independence from party authority.

So, the 16 June meeting of the party's ruling council, which had been billed as a defining moment, has not clarified very much.

The civil war within Ulster Unionism rumbles on and more emergency meetings appear likely.

In the future they may be called by the party leadership seeking to bring its troublesome rebels to heel.

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