Another political crisis in Northern Ireland was narrowly avoided and a new one born when at the end of October Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble won his party’s confidence vote, defeating a challenge from anti-agreement MP Jeffrey Donaldson for the leadership of the UUP. This was the third challenge Trimble faced in his leadership of the UUP in the past year, and one of the more crucial ones, since the Ulster Unionist Party lost a seat in Westminster only weeks earlier to Ian Paisley’s DUP in the South Armagh by-election.
In an effort to unite the party, Trimble adopted a more hardline stance on the decommissioning issue, presenting a six-point document introducing sanctions that would force the IRA to surrender their arms. One of the most contentious of the proposals is to refuse to allow Sinn Féin cabinet members to participate in the North-South ministerial council, which brings together government ministers from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to confer on issues of common concern. This element of the Good Friday Agreement is especially important to Nationalists as it paves the way for increased cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Trimble’s motion also stated that the party would meet again in January to review the progress on decommissioning. Donaldson had demanded that the party withdraw from the power-sharing government if decommissioning was not underway by November 30.
In postponing the review to January, Trimble has won the pro-agreement camp more time, but has further strained relations with the Republicans and Nationalists by imposing a sanction on the meeting of the North-South council. Deputy First Minister and SDLP leader Seamus Mallon criticized Trimble’s plan, stating, “On the face of it, these steps would appear to be a breach of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.” He continued that it would be unacceptable if “one party to this political process is dictating to an Irish government, or to ourselves, or to Sinn Féin, or anybody else as to who will be present where and when.”
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams responded to the sanction, asking, “How does David Trimble expect to achieve his stated objective [implementing the GFA] by reducing a Sinn Féin minister to someone who can only do his or her job at Mr. Trimble’s whim, or by handing the whole process over to Jeffrey Donaldson?” Only three days before the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party Council the IRA allowed for a second inspection of its arms dumps, a gesture some perceived as a lifeline for the embattled UUP leader. However, in accommodating the anti-agreement wing of the UUP, Trimble’s new stance has thrown the future of the Good Friday Agreement into jeopardy. ♦