UUP feud ends amid poll threat
UUP feud ends amid poll threat

Three dissident Ulster Unionist MPs are to rejoin the party's group at Westminster following a hardening of the party's attitude to the Good Friday Agreement.

Jeffrey Donaldson, David Burnside and Martin Smyth are set to return when the British parliament goes back to business next week, according to reports.

The three MPs faced disciplinary action after their decision in June to refuse to adopt the party line at Westminster.

They did not support the Good Friday Agreement and called for party leader David Trimble to change party policy or step down from the post. In response, Mr Trimble said the so-called `No men' should quit the party.

In September, the 900-member Ulster Unionist Council met to discuss disciplinary action against the three MPs. They voted in favour of party leader David Trimble's motion calling for the MPs to again follow the UUP line in parliament, and no vote was taken on the main motion on disciplinary action.

Senior Ulster Unionist Reg Empey welcomed the news, which he said ``would send a signal to our very patient supporters that we are getting back together again and I think we can move on and deal with some of the other issues that we have as a party''.

Speculation is continuing that twice-cancelled elections to the Belfast Assembly will be held on November 13, even if the necessary progress to clinch a political deal has not been made by the middle of next week.

If this turns out to be the case then the November poll would effectively be an election to a review of the Good Friday Agreement which had been due to be held this winter anyway.

It is understood that the British government will encourage Ian Paisley's ultra-hardline DUP party to take some part in the review as a compromise on their demands for a renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said the next seven to eight days were going to be crucial.

Mr McGuinness said that the new hardline UUP position had made things more difficult, but overall he maintained that the situation was not impossible.

He said that work continues, there will be more meetings, and that everyone had to reach for the stars and try to get a breakthrough. They had to try to ensure an election would be held in the best possible atmosphere.

Sinn Féin Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin speaking at a meeting of the party's Ard Chomhairle [leadership] in Dublin this afternoon called on the British government to end the public uncertainty and call the Assembly election.

``People from right across the country reported on the growing frustration at the ongoing impasse and the attempts by the Ulster Unionists to jeopardise the chance of making progress by continuously raising the bar,'' he said.

``The British government should end the public uncertainty and confusion over the election. An election is a democratic imperative and it is our belief that we have won the argument on this matter, nationally and internationally.

``It is clear that there is no option other than an election. Democracy must be upheld and in these difficult times politics must be seen to work.

``It is vital that in the months ahead that we use our voices to secure the full implementation of the Agreement. I am calling on nationalists to use any election to strengthen the peace process and the process of change.''

The Ulster Unionist executive also met today to discuss the party's talks with Sinn Féin. The 110-strong organisation will focus on recent discussions aimed at restoring power-sharing in the North of Ireland.

Reg Empey last night warned UUP party activists that Gerry Adams could emerge as leader of the largest party in the Assembly should Tony Blair allow the elections to proceed.

In a speech in his East Belfast constituency which seemed to assume a November poll, Empey pointed to the possibility of Sinn Féin emerging with the largest grouping at Stormont following a low unionist turn-out.

He cited the case of council elections in 2001 when Sinn Féin became the largest single party in Belfast City Hall, which he blamed on 9,000 unionist voters staying at home.

``If unionists poll badly then it is possible for Sinn Féin to become the largest party. Imagine a Northern Ireland with Gerry Adams as leader of the largest party. This is not an idle threat. It is real, and people had better not keep their heads in the sand and ignore it.''

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