Northern Ireland leader fends off challenge by hard-liners within his Protestant party

Saturday, December 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The leader of Northern Ireland's unity government easily defeated hard-liners within his Protestant party Saturday in a policy vote that kept the future of Catholic-Protestant cooperation on track.

Trimble won a 409-320 vote of the grass-roots members of his Ulster Unionists, the largest party in Northern Ireland's often-troubled coalition government at the heart of the province's 1998 peace accord.

Trimble was narrowly re-elected last month as leader of a four-party government that, to the anger of many Protestants, includes Irish Republican Army supporters. Trimble returned to power after the IRA began scrapping weapons, a long-awaited part of the peace accord.

Saturday's vote pitted Trimble against a motion from hard-line Ulster Unionists that called on the party to withdraw from some government functions in March if Britain didn't reverse key decisions on reforming Northern Ireland's police force.

Last month Britain officially renamed the Royal Ulster Constabulary as the more neutral-sounding ``Police Service'' and removed the terrorism-hardened force's emblem of a British crown atop an Irish harp.

Such moves were part of a painstakingly negotiated plan to make the police force more acceptable to the province's substantial Catholic minority. They appear virtually impossible to reverse.

Trimble welcomed the fact he wouldn't be tied to a policy of trying to overturn those changes.

``We can look forward to the future with a little greater confidence,'' Trimble said at the meeting venue, a glass-fronted concert hall on Belfast's rapidly improving riverfront.

The 56.2 percent support for Trimble in Saturday's vote was an improvement over the 54 percent he garnered in the most recent of a series of leadership challenges within his badly divided party.

Paul Bew, a Queen's University politics professor, called the result ``a good day'' for Trimble.

``The Trimble-ites will certainly be delighted,'' agreed political commentator Fionnuala O Connor, who said the vote revealed that the hard-liners opposing Trimble within the party were weakening.

Before the vote, the hard-liners dropped another motion that called on Trimble and other Ulster Unionists in the power-sharing government to withdraw completely, forcing the coalition's collapse, if the IRA didn't completely disarm by the end of February.

Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that has two posts in the 12-member administration, has previously appealed to the Ulster Unionists not to make specific disarmament demands on the IRA, insisting that this only encourages the outlawed group to dig in its heels on the issue.

But the hard-liners vowed to keep Trimble under pressure, and said the Ulster Unionists wouldn't stay in government indefinitely with Sinn Fein if the IRA didn't surrender all of its secretly stockpiled weapons.

Jeffrey Donaldson, a prominent Ulster Unionist critic of the 1998 pact _ particularly its vaguely worded disarmament section _ said his party couldn't say in government with Sinn Fein unless the IRA spelled out its disarmament intentions.

``We need to ensure there is a timescale for (weapons) decommissioning,'' Donaldson said. ``If we keep it open-ended then it's never going to happen.''