Belfast peace accord on the line again in Ulster Unionist vote

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The Independent Online

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble convened his divided delegates this morning for a policy vote that could blow Northern Ireland's peace process off course once again - and perhaps shatter his own fragile hold over his party.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble convened his divided delegates this morning for a policy vote that could blow Northern Ireland's peace process off course once again - and perhaps shatter his own fragile hold over his party.

Trimble, the Nobel laureate who has twice led his Ulster Unionists into a four-party government that includes the IRA-allied Sinn Fein, faces his first head-to-head confrontation with his chief opponent, Good Friday accord critic Jeffrey Donaldson.

Donaldson, who has long chastised Trimble for accepting a pact that contained no ironclad requirements from the IRA to disarm, is hoping the party will back his plans to collapse the Catholic-Protestant administration if the IRA hasn't begun to disarm by November 30th.

Trimble is facing mounting pressure because the IRA has yet to fulfill its May promise to work with disarmament officials to put its weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use." But Trimble is arguing that Donaldson's blunt plan, particularly its specific deadline, would give the outlawed group an excuse to abandon its disarmament pledge.

The Ulster Unionist chief has prepared his own get-tough strategy that he hopes a majority of delegates within the party's 860-strong council delegates will back. Both Sinn Fein and the coalition's major Catholic-supported party, the moderate SDLP, fear that Trimble's plan could upset the peace process too.

Should Trimble lose, his five-year tenure as Ulster Unionist chief would be in jeopardy, with his likely replacements all less willing to pursue the 1998 peace pact. Key to his survival is his party's deputy leader, John Taylor, who in previous key votes has given Trimble only half-hearted or last-minute support.

And once again Taylor declined to say how he was going to vote as he entered the Waterfront Hall, Belfast's glass-fronted conference center on the River Lagan, a symbol of the massive redevelopment under way in downtown Belfast since the IRA stopped planting car bombs here in 1994 as part of its cease-fire.

When the Ulster Unionist delegates last voted in May, after the IRA issued its disarmament pledge, Trimble received just 53 per cent backing for a return to power-sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein.

Trimble had initially persuaded his party in November 1999 to form the coalition - the intended cornerstone of the peace accord - after receiving assurances from Sinn Fein that gradual IRA disarmament would be likely to follow. His margin of victory then was 57 per cent.

But IRA disarmament didn't happen. The following February, Britain stepped in to save Trimble's party leadership by suspending the administration's powers and reimposing direct rule from London.

The power-sharing government has 12 Cabinet posts with Trimble in the senior position. The Ulster Unionists have three others, the Catholic SDLP four, while Sinn Fein and the hardline Democratic Unionists have two each.

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