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20 April 2000 Edition

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Unionism's schism

BY FERN LANE

The precise reasons behind David Trimble's announcement last weekend that he wishes his party to sever its links with the Orange Order may not become clear for some time. It could represent an effort to shore up his own seemingly precarious position in the event of another challenge to his leadership. It may stem from a desire to wreak revenge on the Order after last month's UUC meeting. It may even reflect a genuine desire to modernise the Ulster Unionist Party and rid it of its self-defeating `no guns, no government' stance. Perhaps it's a combination of all of these, but one thing at least is perfectly obvious; the splits in unionism are becoming ever wider.

Clearly the power the Order has to impose its extremist agenda on the Ulster Unionist Council, where it has 120 of the 860 votes, has progressively become a source of profound irritation to Trimble and, it has to be said, a serious danger to his political standing. He was humiliated at the UUC meeting last month when Orange Order delegates joined with the ultra right-wing Young Unionists group, which has 34 votes, to help Martin Smyth to 43 per cent of the vote against Trimble's 57 per cent in the contest for the party leadership.

Despite his stated desire to establish a new relationship with the cooperation of the Order, Trimble's apparent frustration with the political muscle it enjoys in the current system surfaced when he cited the example of Denis Watson, who as the Order's Grand Secretary is entitled to nominate delegates to UUC meetings, notwithstanding his being a member of the DUP, saying: ``We can't have that. It is a clear example of the need for change. One party can't be allowed to appoint delegates to another.''

The decision has caused a predictable backlash from anti-Agreement party members, many of whom are members of the Order, with early rumblings of the threat of court action and serious fall-outs over property necessitating some hasty reassurances from the UUP leader. Denis Watson, for his part, made the rather acute observation that in breaking the link with the Order, Trimble would be ``killing off the goose that laid the golden egg''.

There has, of course, been talk of reform for a number of years without any action; certainly Trimble spoke of the need to examine the relationship between his party and the Order very soon after his own election as leader. This time, he has outlined a plan which would bring the proposed changes before the UUP Rules Revision Committee in June. The matter will then be brought to the UUC in the autumn and ultimately come before the annual conference next year. Curiously, however, the matter of Trimble's own individual status as Orangeman and whether this will continue has not been discussed. If he decides to continue his membership, it would suggest that he is personally wedded to the ideology of Orangeism but that the Order is getting in his way politically and needs to be dumped.

The announcement, as well as emphasising the present and potential splits within unionism, has also illustrated the splits in Jeffrey Donaldson's own personality. Donaldson is on record as stating his belief in the need for the UUP to cut its links with the Order. Now that he has decided to come out as an anti-Agreement hardliner and ambitious prospective leader of his party, however, he has undergone a dramatic change of heart, opposing any severing of the link and accusing Trimble, ironically, of political expediency.

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