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2000: Trimble narrowly wins leadership challenge

David Trimble has narrowly beaten off a challenge to his leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party casting doubt on its unity and the future of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Mr Trimble needed a clear victory over his rival, the Rev Martin Smyth, to give him authority to handle the peace process but he only secured 57% of the votes of the party's ruling council.

MP Mr Smyth, who is opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, took 43% with the voting figures 457-348.

Body blow

Mr Trimble's narrow majority win has dealt a body blow to hopes of restarting the suspended power-sharing Northern Ireland assembly in the foreseeable future.

Downing Street's worry is that a split in Unionist ranks could leave the way open for another leadership challenge and it regards Mr Trimble's role as First Minister in the stalled assembly as crucial to its success.

Mr Smyth said he challenged Mr Trimble for the Ulster Unionist leadership to "test the mood of the party" after he accused the party leader of making too many concessions to republicans.

Today's result is considered to reflect anger at Mr Trimble's comments suggesting he was prepared to revive the assembly before the IRA had decommissioned weapons, with some guarantees.

Police reforms

The Ulster Unionist Council also voted in favour of insisting on the retention of the RUC title as a pre-condition to the party's co-operation in any future devolved government.

The RUC's name is due to be changed under reforms recommended by Chris Patten.

The motion was passed in spite of an attempt by Mr Trimble to amend it and his amendment was defeated narrowly - 53% to 47%.

The peace process stalled in February, when the government suspended the Northern Ireland power-sharing assembly, over the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons.

In Context
David Trimble was the surprise winner of the Ulster Unionist leadership election in 1995 and at the time many feared it marked the end of the peace process.

But it was him, the former hard line unionist, who cut the deal with nationalists and republicans which led to power-sharing which remains a rocky road to self-rule.

He is accused by many in his own camp of having sold out to republican terrorism but also criticised by many nationalists and republicans for wanting to treat them as second class citizens.

Despite these accusations, Mr Trimble's decision in 1998 to sign the Good Friday Agreement won him support in London, Dublin and Washington and led to him sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with SDLP leader John Hume.

He went on to become the first minister in the newly-devolved government of Northern Ireland in November 1999, but was later forced to quit.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended in 2002 and did not meet again until May 2007 when DUP leader Ian Paisley became first minister.


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