David Trimble’s troubled leadership was under intense pressure tonight as he prepared to take charge of a new Ulster Unionist Assembly party left hopelessly split over the Good Friday Agreement.
His future is in serious doubt after the results of the Stormont elections confirmed Northern Ireland more polarised than ever with little hope of an end to the political deadlock.
Sinn Fein overwhelmed the nationalist SDLP and Ian Paisley’s hardline Democratic Unionists are threatening to overtake their bitter Ulster Unionist rivals and become the single largest team at Parliament Buildings.
It would be a shattering blow for Mr Trimble.
Up to 13 members of his party at Stormont either reject, or are unhappy with, the Agreement, and even though the Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy will have talks next week with all sides, there is virtually no chance of an early restoration of the power sharing executive in Belfast.
The decisive anti-Agreement shift by Unionists disillusioned with the direction of the peace process is a huge setback for Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.
Even though the Ulster Unionist vote increased slightly and Mr Trimble insisted he would fight on, critics claimed tonight there will have to be major changes in advance of next June’s European election.
The party trailed in third place behind Sinn Fein and the DUP’s 178,000 first preference votes. The last results from the 18 constituencies will not be declared until later tonight, but latest predictions forecast 30 seats for the DUP, Ulster Unionists 27, 24 for Sinn Fein and 18 for the SDLP.
The middle ground was squeezed hard with the moderate Alliance Party in the running for possibly six seats, one for the Progressive Unionists, one for UK Unionists and one for an independent. The two Women‘s Coalition members lost their seats.
Mr Trimble has already survived one leadership challenge in March 2001 and several narrow votes by his ruling council. But Jeffrey Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP and his No 1 opponent indicated he would step forward if the opportunity arose for a new man at the top.
With Mr Trimble due to meet his new Assembly team for the first time on Monday, Mr Donaldson said the leader would have to reflect on his position. He warned: “It is time for change and if a vacancy arises, I will consider putting my name forward. This party is not going to unite under David Trimble.”
The leader insisted, however, he had no plans to give way. In his Upper Bann constituency he said: “I have every intention of continuing as leader. I know there’s an important job to be done and I have demonstrated over the last eight years there’s more than a little stickability here.”
The Assembly was suspended more than a year ago amid claims the IRA was operating a spy network inside the Assembly.
Republicans‘ refusal to give into Unionist demands to decommission all weapons hidden in their secret arms dumps remains a massive obstacle to progress and without the “acts of completion”, which he believes are critical to progress, Mr Trimble said there can be no resumption of a devolved government in Belfast.
Sinn Féin’s electoral performance in overtaking the SDLP will strengthen the negotiating hand of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and although their disciplined voting strategy and management impressed London and Dublin, the two governments are unlikely to meet the demand for an immediate lifting of the Assembly’s suspension.
With the Agreement due to be reviewed next month the process will effectively be put on hold, and in the meantime Mr Blair and Mr Ahern will regard Mr Trimble’s future leadership as absolutely critical if any sort of progress is to be made in the short term.
They may get an indication after Monday’s Ulster Unionist inquest by the new Assembly team.
Arlene Foster from Fermanagh south Tyrone, one of the new MLAs who is opposed to the Agreement claimed tonight he would resist any calls for a resignation. She said: “Unionists voted two to one against the Agreement and I don’t think he can stay, but I’ll be surprised if he will go at this stage.”
East Derry’s David McClarty, one of his closest associates, insisted the party did not lose any seats to the DUP.
He said: “I will continue to back him as leader. We have had our difficulties during the campaign, but our vote held up remarkably well. All these issues should be discussed behind closed doors, not in the public arena.”
Other senior officials claimed opponents of Mr Trimble, who feared for their seats in the run-up to the election, could return in a much more assertive mood and questioned if the leader could take more internal pressure.
But Michael McGimpsey, a member of Mr Trimble’s ministerial team in the last Assembly said he did not anticipate any challenge in the short term.
He added: “Sober reflection is needed and that is what we are going to get.”