Hardline Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson was tonight considering his political future after losing the latest vote at his party’s ruling council.
A motion put forward by the Lagan Valley MP aimed at forcing party leader David Trimble into rejecting the British and Irish governments’ plan for the peace process was amended after delegates at the 900-member council sided with Mr Trimble.
As Mr Donaldson had raised the prospect that he might quit the party if his motion was not accepted in its entirety, the pressure mounted on him to make a decision about his future.
Mr Trimble made a direct appeal to Mr Donaldson to stay in the party despite tonight’s defeat.
“I would like him to consider his decision and the only way for him to do that is to remain in the party,” the UUP leader said.
Mr Donaldson had wanted Ulster Unionist delegates to reject the joint declaration released last month by the British and Irish governments outright.
The peace plan proposed a substantial reduction in the number of troops in Northern Ireland, policing and criminal justice reforms, a sanctioned body for parties in breach of the Good Friday Agreement and a judicial scheme which would enable paramilitaries who have been on the run to return to Northern Ireland without being arrested.
At a news conference late tonight, Mr Donaldson said he would take a few days to decide whether he should remain in the Ulster Unionist Party.
He said the decision would be taken after he had faced down a motion of no confidence in him in the constituency.
Mr Donaldson said he was confident he would win that vote and added that there was no question of him resigning as the MP for Lagan Valley.
But he said he was now beginning to question whether the Ulster Unionist Party remained committed to the principles he believed in.
“Tonight we had the opportunity to address concerns,” he said.
“Tonight we had the opportunity to speak into those homes, to those families and say we understand those concerns.
“We understand why you have lost your confidence and we are going to do something about it.
“Tonight we have lost that opportunity.
“For five years I have tried to persuade this party that those principles are worth something but perhaps my energies would be better employed in other ways.”
As Mr Donaldson left with UUP honorary secretary and close ally Arlene Foster by his side, Ulster Unionist sources in Lagan Valley hinted that the motion of no confidence against Mr Donaldson in the constituency could be withdrawn.
“In the interests of party unity there is a feeling that it might be right to withdraw the motion of no confidence,” a source said.
“We will obviously be watching developments closely.”
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey said there was little optimism in the result, claiming Mr Trimble had already moved on to an anti-Good Friday Agreement platform last September.
“Tonight’s meeting was to consolidate that,” the South Belfast councillor observed.
“Tonight’s meeting was not about whether or not to reject the joint declaration, it was about when to reject it.
“The outcome is a symptom of unionism’s inability to deal with change. Unionism and the UUP in particular are not willing to accept the changes which should and must follow the full implementation of the Agreement.
“The onus remains on the two governments and the British Government in particular to implement the remaining aspects of the agreement. This is the only way forward.”
Mr Trimble said the result was clear-cut and entirely in line with the other meetings that had been taking place in the past five years.
He said: “This is I’m told the 10th time that we have had an issue of this nature and every time a majority of the delegates of the Ulster Unionist council have endorsed the current leadership of the party.”
Mr Trimble conceded that a significant number of people were out of sympathy with the direction the leadership was taking.
Repeating his call for Mr Donaldson to remain in the party he said he would be consulting senior colleagues across the party in order to go forward as a united group.
Mr Trimble said he did not believe the Good Friday Agreement was dead and said the current difficulties were almost entirely due to the behaviour of paramilitaries in general and the failure of Republicans in particular to give a commitment for the end of paramilitary activity.
He added: “That doesn’t mean that the Agreement is dead. It’s taking longer than we thought to get there.”