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The BBC's Denis Murray
"Result shook the party"
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The BBC's George Eykyn
"A dramatic journey"
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Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 18:26 GMT
Double blow for Trimble
Trimble and Smyth
Trimble versus Smyth: Party voted for Trimble
Ulster Unionist David Trimble has beaten off a leadership challenge, in a result that could have far-reaching effects on the Northern Ireland peace process.

The Search for Peace
More related to this story
Link to Good Friday Agreement
Link to Decommissioning
But Mr Trimble, who was favourite to win the poll, failed to win a clear endorsement of his handling of the Northern Ireland peace process - winning only 457 votes - or 56.8%.

At a meeting of the Ulster Unionist's Party's ruling council, his challenger, Reverend Martin Smyth, a long-standing opponent of the Good Friday Agreement, won 348 votes (43.2%).

The Ulster Unionist Council also voted in favour of making a retention of the RUC title a pre-condition of the party's involvement in any future devolved government.

The RUC's name is due to be changed under reforms recommended by Chris Patten.


Trimble
David Trimble: Called for unity
The motion was passed in spite of an attempt by Mr Trimble to amend it.

His amendment was defeated narrowly - 53% to 47%.

Deep concern

Mr Trimble said the result demonstrated "the depths of the concern and the passionate feeling" about the government's plans to reform policing in Northern Ireland.

However, he said that he was not "shattered and I do not think that I am shackled" by the acceptance of the motion.

BBC Northern Ireland correspondent David Eades says the result of the leadership vote amounts to an undoubted blow for Mr Trimble, as the opposition to his approach and to the Good Friday Agreement appears to have hardened within the party.

Mr Trimble had hoped this would clear the air. David Eades says the vote has done anything but - and it makes it hard to see how he can continue his commitment to the agreement without hardening his stance in some way.

'Rock-solid'

However, Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey said it was "a rock-solid vote".

He said: "Yes there is a split within the party, but there is also a clear majority for the leader and his policies. That means rock solid.

"Certainly we would have liked it to have been much more comfortable, but this is a period of extreme tension, nerves and worry for the party and there would have been an element of protest votes in there."

The Reverend Martin Smyth said he had challenged David Trimble for the Ulster Unionist leadership to "test the mood of the party".

He said: "Mr Trimble must tell us how he is going to unify, not only the (Ulster Unionist) Council, but the party and the country and beyond that, the Unionist voters who have been deserting our party in droves.

"That has got to be done. It is the responsibility of the leadership to go forward, to try to unify and as one who has been loyal in that situation, I will be prepared to work."

The prime minister's office welcomed the re-election of Mr Trimble as leader.

A spokesman said Mr Blair has always had the highest admiration for Mr Trimble, but the spokesman refused to comment on the size of the victory margin - saying that it was for others to make a judgment on that.

'Concessions'

A total of 860 members make up the ruling Ulster Council.

Before the crunch vote, Mr Trimble had said he was confident of a win.

Mr Smyth has accused the party leader of making too many concessions to republicans.

He criticised Mr Trimble's comments made in the US last week that he would re-enter a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein before IRA arms decommissioning, provided guarantees were given.


Martin Smyth believed he could take the UUP leadership
Martin Smyth believed he could take the UUP leadership

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson said Mr Trimble's re-election means the Good Friday Agreement is safe.

Mr Mandelson said that while the concerns of what he described as a significant minority of the party could not be ignored, they would not have a veto on future progress.

The peace process has been stalled since mid-February, when the UK Government suspended the fledgling Northern Ireland power-sharing assembly, over the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons.

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See also:

25 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Analysis: Trimble's troubles
25 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein's message for Trimble
23 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Martin Smyth: A hardline challenger?
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