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Friday, 22 September, 2000, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
Where now for David Trimble?
David Trimble with party colleagues
Is David Trimble still leading the way?
by the BBC's Ireland correspondent David Eades

A paltry voter turnout of 43%, a narrow defeat for the Ulster Unionists by just 822 votes - it hardly looks like a disaster.

More like the apathetic response of a Northern Irish electorate to a by-election.

And yet the UUP's inability to hold on to the South Antrim seat is little short of humiliating for the party, and alarming for supporters of the Good Friday Agreement.

This was the second safest constituency in Northern Ireland. So safe that UUP candidates used to stand unopposed for election.

The DUP has depicted this triumph as, effectively, the death knell for the Good Friday Agreement, as the point at which the Unionist electorate have spelt out their rejection of David Trimble.

Punishment for pushing the peace process to a point at which Unionists sit in government with Sinn Fein, while the IRA keeps hold of all its weaponry.

Punishment for allowing the province's police force to be dismantled after decades of protecting the people from the paramilitaries.

Mr Trimble has not hidden his disappointment. He acknowledged it was a bad result. But in many ways it was worse than that.

David Burnside, the party's candidate, was not even Mr Trimble's choice - a peace process sceptic, trying to straddle the party's divided factions.

Dangers ahead

And this is where the dangers for Mr Trimble and the Good Friday Agreement now lie.

The result does nothing to change the mathematics of government in Northern Ireland, but it sends a further shockwave through the Ulster Unionist Party, which his rivals are already exploiting.

Jeffrey Donaldson MP
Jeffrey Donaldson:a strong opponent of Trimble leadership

Jeffrey Donaldson, possibly Mr Trimble's greatest threat as party leader, has called for the party to withdraw from the Executive.

The former party leader, Jim Molyneaux said Mr Trimble must know that "a lot of changes might have to be made".

Those messages are for the entire party to hear; for MPs, MLAs and councillors alike. If the UUP can lose a seat as safe as this, then what chance do members in more precarious positions have of holding on to electoral office?

Mr Trimble knows that is a powerful argument, he will appeal to the government for help. He will have to sound and probably become more hardline about any further peace moves.

He will have to toughen up in particular over reform of the police force, and inspection of IRA weapons by the independent observers.

He has insisted he is not going to resign. But as leader of this party, it is up to him to seek a way of uniting Ulster Unionists behind a common policy if they are to remain the biggest voice in unionism.

That is the advantage the DUP has and it is cashing in on the sense among an increasing number of Unionists in Northern Ireland that they are the biggest losers in the peace process.

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See also:

22 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
Blow to NI peace deal
22 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
Poll defeat 'disaster' for UUP
22 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
What next for the Ulster Unionists?
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