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Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 18:09 GMT
Analysis: Trimble's troubles
David Trimble
Trimble: Changing Unionist style
By Northern Ireland correspondent David Eades

The mathematics of the vote for the leadership of the Ulster Unionists provide the clearest evidence that David Trimble's control over his party is increasingly in question.
The Search for Peace
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He has been re-elected, but the level of support for his last-minute challenger, Martin Smyth, hardly a frontline opponent, has surprised most delegates here.

It 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. It has done anything but and it makes it hard to see how he can continue his commitment to the Good Friday agreement without hardening his stance in some way.

What effect this vote will have on the peace process is not yet clear. The British and Irish Governments may not be that surprised by it, but it will make their task of bringing all parties together again considerably harder.

Internal tensions

Mr Trimble's allies insisted the backing for the leader is not deteriorating.

"Yes there is a division, a split within the party," admitted Michael McGimpsey.

"But there's also a clear majority for the party leader and there's a clear majority for his policies and that remains rock-solid, despite what happened over Christmas, despite all the other problems that we have experience in terms for example of the failure of the Republican movement to live up to their obligations, we remain with that rock-solid vote behind the leader."

The tensions within the council though are considerable.

And one of Mr Smyth's supporters, Phillip Weir, said the party would now have to change its approach to the Good Friday agreement.

"I think it's evident to everyone now that we will not be able to unite around the current direction which the party is taking and a fundamental rethink will have to go into our future policy," said Mr Weir.

Formidable enemies

It is not surprising Mr Trimble faced a leadership challenge.

His enemies are formidable and they have not accepted the Good Friday Agreement despite the party ratifying it by two-to-one in 1998.

In the past, the Ulster Unionist Council has repeatedly backed the leader when it comes to contentious issues, albeit in shrinking numbers.

When last November Mr Trimble advocated an experiment in power-sharing with Sinn Fein in the expectation of decommissioning, the result was just 58% in favour.

The party has historically ditched leaders who compromised but there is, too a loyal streak that runs through the party at times. As the result shows, the party remains deeply divided.

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23 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Martin Smyth: A hardline challenger?
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