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Rebel MPs resign whip as Donaldson drops walk-out threat

Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson announced today he was remaining
within the party but that he and fellow Members of Parliament Martin
Smyth and David Burnside were resigning the party whip, distancing
themselves from the official party line at the Westminster parliament.

At a news conference in Belfast today, the three were joined by former
party leader Jim Molyneaux and insisted there had to be a realignment
in unionism.

The men, who have long been opponents of the 1998 Good Friday
Agreement, are also firmly opposed to the Joint Declaration drawn up by
the British and Irish governments outlining an implementation plan for
the Agreement.

The move is seen as a protest against David Trimble's continued
leadership of the party following last week's vote by the party's
ruling Ulster Unionist Council. In the tenth or eleventh such
encounter, perennial challenger Jeffrey Donaldson failed to overturn
Trimble's 80-odd majority in the 800-strong council.

However, today's protest was significantly less that the walk-out which
Donaldson had threatened and may indicate a lack of tangible support
for his intransigent opposition to the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Donaldson countered claims by Ian Paisley's DUP that the move was a
climbdown which would disappoint hardliners.

He said: "This is not about civil war. This is about the principles our
party was founded on."

Mr Burnside warned that, unless there was an about face by the
leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party, "the position of David Trimble
is untenable".

The three MPs said they would be beginning discussions with the DUP and
UK Unionist Party MP Robert McCartney pressing for fresh negotiations
on an alternative Agreement.

They said: "A new negotiation is necessary to produce a form of
accountable local administration at Stormont which has both unionist
and nationalist consent.

"In the coming days we will also engage with fellow unionists to
discuss how co-operation can be extended to ensure that there is a more
united unionist movement in the future."

Despite openly opposing policy, they ironically accused Mr Trimble of
allowing the UUP to negotiate in "a weak and dysfunctional state".

The trio branded the decision of the Ulster Unionist Council last
Monday not to endorse their policy of rejecting the joint declaration
as "a new low for unionism". The party was "divided right down the

Mr Burnside said: "This is a start to rebuilding unionism." Mr Burnside
has said he would not leave the UUP, preferring to oppose the Good
Friday Agreement from within the party.

Democratic Unionist Party leader the Rev Ian Paisley said the move by
the three MPs was a "gesture in the right direction", but would not
satisfy hardliners.

Many had been led to believe there would be a substantial and
meaningful move and would be "very disappointed".

He said in discussions with the MPs he would hope to convince them they
would be better off joining his party.

There was a contradiction in the decision of the trio, he indicated.

"The key problem is the incompatibility for anti-Agreement unionists
remaining inside a pro-Agreement party."

Those who had fought to change the direction of the UUP had to realise
that by remaining members they were "in actual fact helping to sustain
David Trimble and the agenda he is pursuing", he added.

Mr Donaldson and his colleagues had indicated they wished to discuss
the future direction of unionism with the DUP, said Mr Paisley.

"We are always ready to do this and we will take an early opportunity
to do so.

"In such discussions we would hope to convince them, as we have
convinced others, that the DUP is the best vehicle for advancing our
collective purpose," he added.


David Trimble later launched moves tonight to have Martin Smyth removed
as party president, and to have Jeffrey Donaldson removed from his
position as one of the party vice presidents.

Mr Trimble's announcement came after consultation with lawyers. This
evening he accused the three dissidents of making it clear "they will
not accept party democracy".

He said the reasons they gave for their action were "disingenuous in
the extreme".

He added: "After such a direct repudiation of the Ulster Unionist
Council's decision, the positions of its president and one of its vice
presidents are wholly untenable."

Resignation would clearly be the "principled course of action" he said,
adding that in any party elsewhere in the UK their actions would be
regarded as a resignation from the party.

Trimble said he could only assume they "recognise and intend this
outcome, but merely wish to place on the rest of the party the task of
tidying up the situation.

"So be it. I have therefore asked the party chairman to convene a
special meeting of party officers later this week."

Mr Trimble said it was "a defining moment not just for the Ulster
Unionist Party but for unionism as a whole."

Making clear he was not going to lie down in face of the hardline
anti-Agreement opposition from within his ranks he said it was also a
key moment for society in the North of Ireland.

"At stake is all the progress that has been made in recent years."

The party was working to deliver a peaceful, democratic Northern
Ireland at ease with itself and its neighbours, said Mr Trimble.

The UUC challenge by the hardliners was the latest in a series of
failed attempts to change Mr Trimble's stance. Of the latest move he
commented: "This is the latest, and I hope the last, effort to turn the
clock back.

"It may also free the party to enable it to complete successfully this
historic endeavour".

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