How a bad day for Trimble turned into a black day for Ulster

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Events in Northern Ireland on Thursday may turn out to be the peace process equivalent of John Major's Black Wednesday - a day when everything seemed to go topsy-turvy. Last night political smoke still filled the air, and many of the facts were still not clear.

Events in Northern Ireland on Thursday may turn out to be the peace process equivalent of John Major's Black Wednesday - a day when everything seemed to go topsy-turvy. Last night political smoke still filled the air, and many of the facts were still not clear.

But enough had emerged to suggest that the turbulence had not yet ruined the peace process, and that the frantic rescue attempts currently under way would salvage enough for a fresh start to be made on Monday, when the parties gather again.

It was none the less a bad day for the process, damaging both to its overall credibility and to the standing of the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, who must hope he will not be cast in the role of Mr Major's Chancellor, Norman Lamont.

The crunch, when it came, followed the now-familiar peace process pattern of long days of tedium suddenly giving way to hectic activity. The peace process review by the former US senator George Mitchell over the past 10 weeks has been glacially slow, though there was much interest in reports that Gerry Adams and Mr Trimble were engaging in serious face-to-face negotiations.

This in itself was both novel and potentially significant in that the previous negotiation - in the summer - was so drenched in distrust that its outcome was to be underpinned not just by solemn assurances but by actual legislation.

During the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement Mr Adams and Mr Trimble never met or spoke directly to each other, though they attended the same plenary sessions. On that occasion the agreement was a synthesis drafted by the British and Irish governments.

This time it was different, all other parties being sidelined as Mr Adams and Mr Trimble struggled with the problem of convincing each other of their good intentions. The common ground was that they have come to share the goal of forming a coalition executive.

The problem was decommissioning, which has been elevated by Mr Trimble, over the past 18 months,to the central issue around which all else revolves. Many observers concluded that, whatever the agreement said about decommissioning, Mr Trimble had successfully established that progress on the issue was a political necessity for him and his party.

Mr Adams, however, seems to have insisted that, while he was not saying "never" on de-commissioning, there was no possibility of it happening in response to Unionist demands. The republican position was that once the Good Friday Agreement had been implemented things could change.

The exact way in which this message was conveyed by Mr Adams to Mr Trimble is unknown, since the terms of the package they hammered out together have not been published. By all accounts, however, Mr Trimble did not receive an absolute assurance that actual decommissioning would happen. Instead, he and Mr Adams constructed a package based on a series of agreed steps: the republicans would make one move, the Unionists would respond, republicans would take another step and so on.

The steps included formal statements of assurance from both the IRA and Sinn Fein, and the appointment of an IRA interlocutor to liaise on the decommissioning issue. Mr Adams has described this as stretching the republican constituency to the limit. Whatever its exact terms, it seems the package won the blessing of both Mr Mitchell and Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The theory was that if Unionists kept their side of the bargain then republicans would be bound to respond.

Although Mr Trimble must have had misgivings that the package did not amount to fulfilment of his party's slogan of "no guns, no government", he undertook to take it to his assembly members. All but two of the 28 were on hand when he presented the package.

Meetings of his assembly party have proved problematic in the past. To counteract this pattern, Mr Trimble met them in small groups on Wednesday to outline the package. But by the time they met in full session on Thursday, it had become clear there were problems.

Exactly what happened within the party on Thursday remains unclear. Maybe one vote was taken, maybe two; mysteriously, one secret ballot was held but Mr Trimble did not announce its result.

While all this was going on Mr Mitchell, Mr Mandelson, Sinn Fein and Dublin officials were waiting anxiously near by. There was dismay when it was reported at first that the Unionists had rejected the deal, but as the evening wore on confusion spread when it was said the vote might have been in the region of 19 to 7 in favour. Mr Trimble's position within the assembly as a whole is such that he needs to keep all or nearly all of his members on board for vital votes.

Even with seven or more votes against him, Mr Trimble might appeal directly to his party's ruling council on a "back me or sack me" basis. But there has been no confirmation of the result of the vote.

Yesterday was thus a day of confusion and exasperation as everyone tried to work their way through the unanswered questions of what exactly the deal contained and exactly how the Unionists had voted on it.

There are suspicions that partial and misleading accounts of the Unionist meeting were deliberately put out to gain political leverage. The impression has also been left that this is a party which may be close to disarray.

In any event, the impression of disarray has momentarily spread to the peace process as a whole. There will now have to be some days of clarification and damage limitation beforethe search for agreement -begins again.