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Saturday, 23 September, 2000, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Dangerous times for Trimble
Head above water: Trimble faces tough fight  back
Head above water: Trimble faces tough fight back
BBC NI political editor Stephen Grimason looks back at a week in which the Ulster Unionists lost one of their safest Westminster seats to the rival anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party.

These are dangerous times for Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

Defeat for the Ulster Unionists in the South Antrim by-election, while it can not really be described as unexpected, was still a huge shock to the party.

The UUP will point out that in the same constituency a majority of unionists who voted in the assembly elections two years ago, had opted for "no" candidates.

And scepticism there about the Good Friday Agreement has deepened since then.

But this was also the second safest Ulster Unionist seat in the country and the public perception was one of the UUP in electoral freefall.

Electoral terms

If they cannot hold on to South Antrim, the argument runs, then no elected Ulster Unionist can be safe from a DUP challenge.

It is not as simple as that but, in electoral terms, politicians live mostly on their nerves.

There is no point in being in politics if you can not get elected, and David Trimble's private fear must be that even his trusted lieutenants might panic and look elsewhere for leadership.

But that is where Mr Trimble is a bit more secure than he might seem.

Those who covet the leadership appear to have a sort of post-dated approach to it. They want to be the next leader but one.

If David Trimble was to quit or be forced out, all his successor would inherit - after the almost inevitable party implosion - would be a poisoned chalice.

And the current leader is in no mood to quit - he insists he will tough it out and will try to use the vice of defeat as a virtue in his battle with the government over the policing bill.

David Burnside
David Burnside: The Ulster Unionist Party candidate
The received wisdom before the South Antrim by-election was that the government would get David Trimble beyond that test - expecting David Burnside to win - as well as the Ulster Unionist annual conference early next month, before swinging back towards the nationalist position on the legislation.

The Ulster Unionist leader will now be telling Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson and the prime minister that any such move would be disastrous.

The SDLP and Sinn Fein, however, while not having been given any assurances that a swing back towards them was ever on the cards, have already issued statements.

They insist they will not support the new police service unless its is an undiluted version of the original Patten report and warn the government not to be fixated by David Trimble's survival.

The DUP have had their best week for years and believe they do not have to do very much more to roll up the UUP in the general election

The simple fact is that messrs Mandelson and Blair do not see how the assembly can survive without David Trimble as first minister.

Consider what would happen if he resigned.

Anti-agreement unionists now have the numbers to stop another first minister being elected and, as first and deputy first are a joint slate, Seamus Mallon would also have to go.

There would be no expectation of agreement on those two posts and Mr Mandelson would have to call another assembly election, pitting a weakened UUP against a marauding DUP.

The DUP have had their best week for years and believe they do not have to do very much more to roll up the UUP in the general election.

'Men overboard'

Peter Robinson took careful aim when he said his party was now the predominant force in unionism and he clearly believes the South Antrim result will have the effect of a virus within the Ulster Unionist Party.

Whatever way you look at it, David Trimble has been weakened by the events in South Antrim.

The Ulster Unionist ship, while not holed below the waterline, is not in great shape.

The coming difficulties might be described as a potential "perfect storm," a coming together of political turbulence caused by decommissioning, policing and ongoing loyalist violence.

David Trimble simply cannot afford any more men overboard.

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See also:

22 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
UUP 'will learn' from election defeat
17 Apr 00 | Northern Ireland
Unionists debate Orange Order ties
22 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
Poll defeat 'disaster' for UUP
22 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
Blow to NI peace deal
22 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
The gospel-singing MP
29 Apr 00 | Northern Ireland
MP's death adds to pressure on Trimble
15 Sep 00 | Northern Ireland
Peace process 'at risk' over policing
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