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Last Updated: Friday, 6 May, 2005, 21:58 GMT 22:58 UK
'No escape for political Houdini'
Gareth Gordon
by Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

He used to be the Harry Houdini of Northern Ireland politics, but David Trimble's luck has finally run out.

Now the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, has emerged Steve McQueen-like with an act of escapology of which Mr Trimble would have been proud.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble
Has David Trimble made his last political escape?

His was a do-or-die struggle to hold his mentor John Hume's seat of Foyle. Victory for Sinn Fein and the SDLP could have been finished - never mind Mr Durkan.

But to win by 6,000 votes is a result no-one could have predicted.

And with Alasdair McDonnell taking south Belfast and Eddie McGrady easily holding off Sinn Fein in South Down, the SDLP has escaped the guillotine in near-miraculous fashion.

But for the Ulster Unionists, it could hardly be worse.

When David Trimble became leader in 1995, the party had 10 Westminster seats to the DUP's two. Now they have just one - North Down - to the DUP's nine.

The electorate has finally done what the party's ruling council failed on several occasions to do - finish off David Trimble good and proper.

But with him goes at least two figures who would have been leaders in waiting - David Burnside who lost South Antrim to the DUP's William McCrea - and Michael McGimpsey who failed to take the South Belfast seat, held for more than 20 years by Mr Trimble's anti-Agreement rival Martin Smyth.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan kept Foyle for the SDLP

Who will succeed him, and what can they possibly do to lead the party out of the doldrums?

Lady Sylvia Hermon is now the party's only MP. She has never shown any inclination to seek the limelight - never mind the party leadership - but now she may have no choice.

At very least she could lead the party in the Commons with a joint leader at home - a bit like the double act of Harry West and James Molyneaux in the mid-70s.

Could Sir Reg Empey fit the bill? Sylvia Hermon has been critical of him in the past but now is not the time for mulling over past differences.

Whoever it is they have the toughest job in politics.

Not only do they have to take on the sleek machine that is the modern DUP but they also have to rid the UUP of what one commentator calls the ''muppetry'' which has plagued it for several years.

What they wouldn't give to be in the same position of that other party which was said to be in difficulties - the SDLP.

Alasdair McDonnell is the first nationalist MP for South Belfast

If Mr Durkan's result was remarkable so was Alasdair McDonnell's.

The fact that he only won South Belfast because the unionist vote was so split is something the party won't be worrying about for the moment.

Chances are the DUP, which came so close to winning the seat from a standing start, will now now make it its number one target next time around.

Mr McDonnell may only have one term to enjoy the glory he waited 28 years to claim.

Similarly, Mr McGrady, 70 in June, is likely to have defended South Down for the final time.

Sinn Fein will be confident of taking that seat at the next election. But for now the SDLP have bought themselves some time and have stopped the Sinn Fein juggernaut.

They live to fight another day - the Ulster Unionists can only hope they do as well.






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