This time Ulster's dissenters may finally learn to say yes

`Protestants value the right to dissent, prizing and constantly exercising their freedom of conscience'
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WOLFE TONE, the founder of Irish republicanism, had a dream of uniting all Irishmen, whether they were Protestant, Catholic or Dissenter. That was two centuries ago, but a century is a short time in Irish politics. In the meantime, the Anglicans and the Presbyterians, to whom Tone was referring, have indeed united politically - as Ulster Unionists.

On Saturday their party will meet in Belfast to decide the immediate fate of the peace process. If they back David Trimble and the deal he worked out in nearly 300 hours of face-to-face talks with Gerry Adams, then everyone turns up at the assembly on Monday to elect a government. But if they don't back him, or don't support him strongly enough, then all will be uncertainty and limbo and near-despair.

The decision will be taken by the Ulster Unionist Council, whose 850 members have been described as the parliament of the Unionist party. An indication of why its decisions are sometimes difficult to call lies back in the dissenting tradition.

The last Northern Ireland census detected more than 70 religions in Northern Ireland. Some of these are politically irrelevant, such as the 835 Muhammadans, the 69 Greek Orthodox and the four men and six women who say they follow Zoroaster. But about 50 of the religions seem to be variants of Protestantism. Eight of them have the word "Presbyterian" in their names, while a dozen or more proudly proclaim the Nonconformist tradition by styling themselves as Free, Independent, Non-subscribing or Reformed. In other words, Protestants value their right to dissent, prizing and constantly exercising the freedom of the individual conscience. In political terms this translates into extraordinary freedom for party members to criticise and oppose leaders such as David Trimble.

In other political cultures the actions of some of his opponents in the party would be denounced as traitorous back-stabbing. In Belfast, however, the dissenting tradition means that many believe critics have not just the right but the duty to speak out and give witness, in politics as in religion.

The great fissure within Unionism, amid these myriad little fissures, centres on whether or not it is possible and desirable to do a deal with the other side: the Catholics, the nationalists and the republicans. There are essentially two types of Unionist politician, those who are prepared to make a deal and those who want to make no deal. Many used to place David Trimble in the latter category. The Trimble era began in 1995 when, as an MP of only five years' standing, he joined the thousands of Orangemen at the barricades of the first Drumcree confrontation, protesting against a police ban on their march.

The irony is that the politician who just yesterday graciously commended the RUC on richly deserving its George Cross was the same person who, in an Orange sash, made his name by hectoring police officers for stopping the parade. He and the Orange Order prevailed at that first Drumcree, facing down the police by sheer strength of numbers and getting the march down the road. Within months of his televised angry finger-wagging, he had received a huge reward by becoming leader of his party. His elevation was greeted with undisguised dismay by most of the Anglo-Irish body politic, for he looked to be firmly within the no-deal camp.

But that was then; this is now. In the intervening years Trimble's horizons have broadened considerably. A weak Major has been replaced by a strong Blair who, with Clinton, has spelt out that a deal must be done; the peace process has moved inexorably on; and Trimble has spent all those hours looking into the eyes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

It seems the republicans made him an offer he could not defuse, an offer he will on Saturday lay before his party's Council. The weakness of that offer is that it does not satisfy the yearning, visible throughout Unionism's history, for certainty, reassurance and guarantees.

The problem is that Adams has conspicuously not promised to deliver decommissioning. He has said Sinn Fein accepts that decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process, but that declaration is confined to Sinn Fein. The IRA has not echoed it; nor has there been any indication of when any disarmament might take place. De-commissioning is thus an inference rather than a commitment. While Sinn Fein's words are intriguing and promising, they obviously do not amount to certainty. As against that, Peter Mandelson, the Irish government and Senator George Mitchell have all said that they believe decommissioning will happen, with London and Dublin promising to wheel-clamp the new executive if it does not. These are strong points but, as historically befits the Protestant tradition, Unionists would prefer to get things in black and white. Instead, the Council is being asked to settle for the argument that republicans are morally and politically, though not textually, bound to decommission.

So how will it decide? It was the Council that chose Trimble as leader in 1995, an act then viewed as a lurch to the right. The worst fear was that Unionism had concluded, following that first Drumcree victory, that it could get its way by sheer numbers rather than negotiation. Yet Trimble went into the talks, and in April of last year he presented to the Council the Good Friday agreement, the most striking example of political give- and-take ever seen in Northern Ireland, and a masterpiece of negotiation. Its terms included not only setting up the Patten commission on the RUC but also the phased release of IRA and loyalist prisoners, including the most notorious on both sides.

All this was breathtaking and much of it was shocking and painful, especially for Unionists, yet the Council endorsed it by 540 votes to 210. This 72 per cent vote was in fact more in favour of the agreement than was the general Protestant community as a whole, which was split roughly 50-50.

Since then Trimble has spent more than a year declaring that his policy was one of "no guns, no government", which was taken to mean that decommissioning would take place as the executive was formed. The fact that he has not managed this means he must bank on the Council concluding that his deal, while imperfect, is the best that could be achieved in the circumstances.

It seems likely that he will win the endorsement he seeks, for the Council has shown itself to be volatile but pragmatic. Those 210 dissenters from the Good Friday agreement are unlikely to change their minds, however, and will continue to stick to the old ways of making no deals. Some will stay within the party to continue to make Trimble's life difficult; some may break away to form rival new political sects in the time-honoured tradition. Some may join up with the Rev Ian Paisley to continue to oppose change.

The sense in the air, however, is that a majority of Protestants and Unionists have concluded that the world has moved on, and the hazards of the peace process are outweighed by the new opportunities it offers. There will always be dissent and disquiet, but this time the new politics may win through.