Empey the loser as Trimble's support holds firm

As David Trimble and his supporters celebrated their latest Ulster Unionist Council triumph, opinion in the party remained divided over its significance today.

As David Trimble and his supporters celebrated their latest Ulster Unionist Council triumph, opinion in the party remained divided over its significance today.

In the run-up to yesterday’s debate on disciplinary action against three rebel MPs, few were predicting that Mr Trimble would romp home with more than 55% of the council.

Indeed, reports linking one of his closest lieutenants, former Stormont Economy Minister Reg Empey, to a leadership coup had many political pundits and party members predicting the tightest vote yet.

Yesterday’s victory for Mr Trimble was undoubtedly a setback for the three rebel MPs – David Burnside, Jeffrey Donaldson and the Rev Martin Smyth – whose decision in June to resign the party whip in a row over policy had triggered the disciplinary action against them.

However, many in the party believed as they left Belfast’s Ulster Hall that the biggest loser out of the meeting was Sir Reg.

A former Assembly member said: “The unknown factor going into the council meeting was Sir Reg.

“This was the first time he was not on David’s side and you had to wonder if he would bring a section of the party with him.

“At the end of the day, David’s vote more than held. Sir Reg was badly exposed and any leadership ambition he might have had has taken a huge dent.”

Yesterday’s vote also leaves the three rebel MPs and their supporters facing an uncomfortable future.

Both David Burnside and Jeffrey Donaldson have said that they will not immediately take up the party whip as they also vowed to continue their battle over policy within the party.

However, at council meeting after council meeting, they have failed to overturn David Trimble’s policies.

Their hardcore support has always been around 45% at the Ulster Unionist Council but with the exception of one issue – the Royal Ulster Constabulary - they have failed to win over a majority of members.

Do they bide their time and wait for another issue to call another meeting of the council in the hope that it will take them over the finishing line, or do they accept that they will never defeat David Trimble?

Party members were in no doubt that the war of attrition in the UUP would remain.

Former Newry and Armagh MLA Danny Kennedy claimed the result was “good for the party’s leader but not such a good result for the party”.

A colleague agreed. “The divisions are still there. You’ve still got bad blood.

“Jeffrey, David Burnside and others have not been able to swing the party in their direction but by the same token, there’s 45% of the party who are unconvinced by David Trimble.

“We can’t go into elections in that state. Do you think Tony Blair would remain leader of the Labour Party with 45% of the party against him?”

Strategists close to Mr Trimble hinted after yesterday’s vote that the MPs would be given time to resume the whip at Westminster.

But they know they cannot afford to rest on their laurels knowing, like Michael Corleone in the Godfather series, that “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”.

A sizeable chunk of the party is still firmly in opposition to them.

If the MPs do not resume the whip, do they continue disciplinary action in the hope that it will drive their internal critics out of the party or do they keep the disciplinary action on pause in the hope that time will heal their divisions?

Nationalist and republican opponents would prefer Mr Trimble to take on the hard-liners in his party.

But they also suspect the UUP leader likes to use the anti-Good Friday Agreement wing of his party as a negotiating ploy, urging the British and Irish governments to throw him a concession to keep them at bay.

With Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair still not showing his hand on the issue of an Assembly election this autumn, the primary question for David Trimble must be can his party remain a leading voice in unionism with such public animosity between its major players?

Or is the UUP, as the rival Democratic Unionist Party’s deputy leader Peter Robinson claims, “irreversibly split”?

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