UUP defections predicted if Trimble stays
UUP defections predicted if Trimble stays

The Ulster Unionist Party could face `meltdown' if, as expected, party leader David Trimble comfortably defeats a challenge to his leadership tomorrow.

It is believed to be the 21st challenge to Mr Trimble's leadership since he signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The forced departure to the rival DUP of leading dissident Jeffrey Donaldson earlier this year has failed to quell the restive party.

Portadown businessman Robert Oliver, a second challenger for the party leadership at tomorrow`' Ulster Unionist Council meeting, said: ``If David Trimble wins by a large percentage then I fear for the future of this party.

``There is a real danger that we may no longer have the UUP as we have known it.''

South Antrim MP David Burnside, who is leading the campaoing for Trimble's ouster, warned some members of the party could opt out of the UUP altogether.

``This party will not be united and unionism certainly will not be united under David Trimble`s leadership,'' Mr Burnside said.

``I fear that that section of solid, loyal Ulster Unionists who have not gone to the Democratic Unionist Party will simply opt out. I for one will not be doing that.''

Under Ulster Unionist rules, David Trimble must seek the backing of his 800-member ruling council every year for his leadership.

Mr Trimble has insisted he still has unfinished business as party leader.

``Our duty to ourselves, to the party, to the people, is to strive to produce a better Northern Ireland, and to do that as unionists within the United Kingdom - I think I can tick those boxes,'' he said.

Mr Trimble refused to make any predictions about the outcome of the leadership challenge.

``That's in the hands of the delegates, and we're getting so close to the AGM that this is the point at which I stop making predictions,'' he said.

``One of the difficulties at this stage is that if your predictions aren't right, people sure as heck remember them.''

Meanwhile, David Ervine of the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party said that while Mr Trimble had made a valuable contribution to the union and the peace process, he had taken unionism as far as he could and should step aside.

``I certainly think that he has confounded some people. He indicates that he's made of sterner stuff than was first considered,'' he said.

``I think what keeps David Trimble going, it's a fear almost that unionism will retreat, a fear that unionism will not take its place in the modern world.''

it was reported that a group of former Trimble supporters met the UUP leader in a bid to persuade him to stand down ahead of tomorrow's contest but were unsuccessful.

Last week, Coleraine-based management consultant David Hoey said he would run against Mr Trimble. However, Mr Hoey said if he won the leadership fight, he would stand aside to make way for a new leadership team.

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