Trimble: seeds of leadership coup sown?

DR JOHN COULTER is a Northern political columnist with the Irish Daily Star. Here, he focuses on Daphne Trimble’s failure to secure the Lagan Valley Westminster nomination and argues that it is evidence of a new wind of change within the UUP. This could be the first stage in a final leadership coup against her husband.Ulster Unionist spin doctors at party HQ in Belfast’s Cunningham House have been working overtime to explain the Lagan Valley association’s ‘strategy’ in dumping the seemingly red-hot certainty for the Westminster nomination, Daphne Trimble, in favour of an unknown businessman who only joined the party a few months ago.

Beaten by a margin of two to one, the wind of change – no, make that a tornado – blowing through Lagan Valley has signaled the start of a fresh onslaught on the Trimble leadership – one that is expected to come to a head by March 2005.

March 2005 is a key time period. Next year sees celebrations to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Ulster Unionist Council, the UUP governing body. The month has also been earmarked when visible proof of IRA decommissioning will be produced, and the green light given to the kick-starting of the power-sharing Stormont Executive with the DUP and Sinn Fein holding the leading roles.

Even the most enthusiastic of the Trimbleista spin doctors was admitting the rejection of Daphne Trimble as the runner against defector Jeffrey Donaldson has confirmed Ulster Unionism is now in the twilight months of her husband’s leadership.

In spite of well-staged photocalls of a smiling David Trimble with the man who beat Daphne, they cannot hide the fact there was a deliberate strategy to dump the leader’s wife – the only candidate who had at least a fighting chance of unseating Donaldson.

And even if Daphne didn’t manage to unseat Donaldson, she could at least have severely slashed his handsome Commons majority, in much the same way as the now almost defunct Northern Ireland Tories reduced the late North Down MP Sir James Kilfedder’s 14,000 majority in 1983 to around 5,000 in 1992.

The 93 delegates who voted against Daphne Trimble have to face reality that one of the major consequences of their actions has been to light the fuse for what will prove to be the most concerted leadership coup attempt ever on her husband.

Granted, Trimble has survived leadership coups in the past since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. But then, all the plotting was hatched by anti-Agreement dissidents loyal to the so-called Gang of Three – Jeffrey Donaldson, Rev Martin Smyth of South Belfast, and David Burnside of South Antrim.

But with Donaldson jumping ship earlier this year to the DUP, taking with him a number of key dissident activists, the anti-Agreement steam roller in the UUC has all but run out of puff.

This time, the leadership coup will be staged by those who would be classified as pro-Agreement and are feeling this icy wind of change from their grassroots. They believe the only way the party can avoid an electoral meltdown in May’s council and expected General Election is to dump Trimble in favour of Sir Reg Empey.

The UUP’s ‘strategy’ to wrench Lagan Valley from Donaldson is simple (although many would view it as merely simple-minded). Take a newcomer to the party and pitch him against the sitting MP who has held the seat since 1997.

This newcomer will be able to topple Donaldson, in spite of the latter topping the poll in the November 2003 Assembly election with 14,000 first preference votes, and in the 2001 General Election, Donaldson received almost 26,000 votes – the highest figure for all Northern Ireland constituencies.

As well as that, the high-profile Lagan Valley Alliance Party MLA Seamus Close has also been nominated to contest the seat.

There has also been the equally daft suggestion that Lagan Valley unionists selected a newcomer to fight Jeffrey because they privately know Donaldson will wipe the political floor with whatever candidate the UUP selects. It’s a case of – better the floor being wiped by an unknown newcomer than the party leader’s wife!

However, the painful truth in Lagan Valley, once the safest UUP seat in the North, is that Daphne’s demise will condemn the constituency to a generation of DUP rule. Donaldson will be MP for as long as he wants the seat.

Indeed, Lagan Valley may well be a Dail constituency in a European-imposed United Ireland before the Ulster Unionists have a pup’s chance of regaining what was once their jewel in the unionist crown under former party leader Jim Molyneaux.

With not having to worry about another Donaldson/Trimble showdown, Jeffrey can concentrate fully on his campaign to take control of the prestigious Lisburn City Council – the final bastion of UUP power in Lagan Valley.

The UUP will have to find another cockpit constituency in which to promote its battle for the heart and soul of Unionism. Eyes are already heavily focused on East Belfast, the political turf of DUP deputy boss Peter Robinson.

After the November 2003 Assembly elections, the UUP was within a few thousand votes of Robinson. If the UUP’s Reg Empey could lift ‘the East’, it would guarantee him the party leadership.

But Daphne’s defeat has further fuelled speculation the UUP will be left with two Commons seats in May – her husband in Upper Bann and Sylvia Hermon in North Down.

As for David Burnside in South Antrim, given what happened to dissident William Ross in East Derry in 2001, maybe the time has come for the PR guru to follow the lead of his pal Jeffrey and jump ship to the DUP as the only way to remain in the Commons.