Trimble to resign Ulster Unionist leadership

David Trimble is resigning as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

David Trimble is resigning as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

After a British general election in which he lost his Upper Bann seat and saw his parliamentary party reduced to just one MP it was only a matter of time before he quit.

He met party leaders in private today and told them he was not going to try to stay on.

“At a private meeting with the President and Chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party this morning I indicated to them that I do not wish to continue as leader,” said Mr Trimble in a statement.

The chairman would be arranging for a meeting of the party executive to make arrangements for a special meeting of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council to elect a new leader at which point Mr Trimble would resign, he said.

In his statement Mr Trimble said he wanted to thank all members of the party for their support and help over the last 10 years.

“There have been difficult times, but also times when we have been able to make a difference,” he said.

“I have no doubt that Northern Ireland is a much better place and unionism greatly advantaged because of our efforts,” said the man who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with former SDLP leader John Hume for their work to secure a political settlement in Northern Ireland.

Mr Trimble said he was pleased to have had the privilege of leading “what I regard as the best and most democratic political grouping in Ulster”.

The Party chairman will be arranging for a meeting of the party Executive to organise a special meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council which will elect a new leader and at which point Mr Trimble said he would resign.

Meetings of the hundreds strong grass-roots members of the council take some time to organise and it is expected to be at least a fortnight until they gather.

In the meantime Mr Trimble is to hold a news conference at party HQ in Belfast on tomorrow.

The UUP lost four seats in Parliament when Northern Ireland's 18 constituency ballots were counted yesterday and left Mr Trimble in an almost untenable position.

Even members who had supported him in his battles down the years against hard-liners in the party who wanted him out, said after the hammering of the party at the polls that he would have to go.

When he, somewhat unexpectedly, took the leadership of the party at a meeting in the Ulster Hall in Belfast in 1995 the party had ten seats at Westminster compared to the two of the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Now the tables have been reversed with the DUP holding nine seats and the UUP just one – Lady Sylvia Herman in North Down.

Mr Trimble’s announcement came just hours after he said publicly he would not be stepping down this weekend.

At the same time he blamed the republican movement and the British government for the state his party found itself in.

The Rev Ian Paisley said the UUP had foundered at the polls because it had lost the confidence of the unionist people over the decision to go into government with Sinn Féin without first getting them to give up all their guns.

Mr Trimble, in essence agreed with him.

He said: “The basic underlying cause is that the Republican movement have not behaved properly over the years. They have not themselves implemented the [Good Friday] Agreement.

“If they had implemented the Agreement then they would have disarmed completely in May, 2000, that is what they undertook to do, that is what they failed to do. Rather than implement the Agreement, the Republican movement have exploited the Agreement.

“The net result of all of that is that there is total disgust in the Unionist community with them.

“That is the basic underlying factor. A contributory factor is that the Government, which ought to have upheld the Agreement and policed the Agreement, has been far too indulgent to Republicans.”

Jeffrey Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP who long battled with Mr Trimble before jumping ship 17 months ago and joining the DUP, said his resignation was inevitable.

Mr Donaldson said: “I am not surprised that Mr Trimble has resigned the leadership of the UUP. Given the scale of their defeat at the General Election it was inevitable and his position had become untenable.”

He said the damage done to the UUP was down to Mr Trimble’s leadership and his failure to recognise “the shift of opinion that had taken place in the unionist community, and in particular the strong opposition to the Belfast Agreement that had developed since 1998.”

In a damning indictment he said: “He leaves a party that is in a sorry state of affairs and I cannot see where the leadership will come from to revive its fortunes.”

Mr Donaldson said there were “good people” in the party and urged them to join him in the DUP.

However there was praise for Mr Trimble from the leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, David Ford, who said he had a significant place in history.

Mr Ford said he had many differences with Mr Trimble but it was only fitting to pay tribute to what he had achieved for the people of Northern Ireland.

“After the moribund years of the 80s and early 90s, David Trimble had the vision and the political courage to lead his party, and a large section of this community, to reaching the Good Friday Agreement.

“This was truly historic.

“It is a tribute to Mr Trimble’s work that even the DUP has now accepted the Agreement in all but name. In time, I believe that David Trimble’s contribution to Northern Ireland will be widely recognised,” said Mr Ford.

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