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Friday, 22 September, 2000, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Poll defeat 'disaster' for UUP
A senior Ulster Unionist MP has called on the party to withdraw from the power-sharing Executive in the wake of their South Antrim by-election defeat.
Reverend William McCrea of the anti-Good Friday Agreement Democratic Unionist Party overturned a 16,000 UUP majority to claim the seat left vacant by the death of sitting MP Clifford Forsythe.
The result is seen by many commentators as a serious setback for the Northern Ireland peace process.
The former Mid Ulster MP took what had traditionally been the second safest Ulster Unionist seat.
Mr McCrea polled 11,601 votes, giving him a majority of 822 over the second-placed UUP candidate, David Burnside.
As Ulster Unionists gathered on Friday to consider the implications of the defeat, MP Jeffrey Donaldson described the result in South Antrim as a "disaster" for the party.
The Lagan Valley MP said the electorate was very "concerned and frustrated" with current direction of the peace process and on-going concessions to republicans.
"We can't sustain a position where we're sitting in government with Martin McGuinness and others who are linked to an organisation which is refusing to decommission its weapons and setting about removing our British identity in Northern Ireland."
"Unless we get our act together fast we will pay a very heavy price at the next election."
Mr Donaldson's call to withdraw from the executive was described as "utter and irresponsible nonsense" by his party colleague Ken Maginnis.
The Fermanagh/South Tyrone MP said many lives were being saved by the current peace process.
"Northern Ireland came through 30 years of violence. We've had hundreds of people dying, over 100 people on average every year.
"If we can move things forward in any way that creates a more secure future, where our soldiers and policemen do not have to be subject to daily attacks by terrorists, then that's the way forward.
"People who say otherwise have very short memories or are very selfish."
Alert breaks up meeting
A bomb alert broke up the Ulster Unionist meeting in Templepatrick at the Novotel Hotel for a time The meeting resumed when nothing was found.
Earlier, DUP leader Ian Paisley said if the South Antrim election result were to be repeated across Northern Ireland in a general election, his party would win eight seats currently held by the UUP.
He said his party's success in South Antrim showed the strength of feeling over the Good Friday Agreement.
"If our opponents still feel their 71% [who voted for the agreement in the 1998 referendum], why do they not have another referendum."
"Eight of those seats held by official [Ulster] unionists would go on the figures of the South Antrim swing," he said.
Earlier, UUP leader David Trimble said he had no intention of stepping down as first minister, despite calls from Ian Paisley to resign.
"There are people in the DUP who would dearly love to see me cease to be first minister because that would open the way for themselves," he told the BBC.
"There are plenty in the DUP who are only too keen to occupy the position I am currently occupying.
"That's part of the irony of the situation of people using the guise of being opposed to the agreement while in fact participating in it and deeply anxious to reap the benefits of the agreement."
"We will continue - yes we've had a setback but we're not giving up.
"We knew that this was not going to be easy and we're deeply disappointed that we did not do better, we thought we would do better in the circumstances."
He referred to a speech earlier this week in which Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said unionists were taking "most of the strain" under the implementation of the agreement and called on the other parties to do more to fulfil their obligations.
"We have been carrying most weight. I think the other parties who wish to see the agreement prosper have got to ask themselves when are they going to carry some of the weight in this."
Mr Trimble's next hurdle is in a few weeks time when the South Antrim defeat will be at the top of the UUP's annual conference agenda in early October.
Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon said the by-election result had been a blow to the pro-agreement parties.
But he added the work of the Executive and Assembly should and would continue.
Republic of Ireland Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said the result had been a good one for Mr McCrea and his party but was not a serious obstacle to the peace process.
"The Good Friday Agreement is stronger than any by-election, anywhere," he said.
Throwing his support behind Mr Trimble, Peter Mandelson asked who could provide an alternative to his leadership that would "bring peace and resolution of the conflict of Northern Ireland?"
However he added: "The overriding imperative for and my colleagues is to make sure than an agreement that has been made, sticks."
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