Narrow Trimble victory saves Northern Ireland executive

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The Independent Online

Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble, yesterday narrowly persuaded his Ulster Unionist Party not to adopt a plan which would have brought down the cross-community executive by Christmas. Instead he convinced the party's ruling council, by a margin of 54 per cent to 46, to support his own scheme for a tougher approach to pressurise the IRA towards arms decommissioning.

Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble, yesterday narrowly persuaded his Ulster Unionist Party not to adopt a plan which would have brought down the cross-community executive by Christmas. Instead he convinced the party's ruling council, by a margin of 54 per cent to 46, to support his own scheme for a tougher approach to pressurise the IRA towards arms decommissioning.

His victory, narrow as it was, showed that, for the moment at least, Mr Trimble has fended off the challenge from the dissident MP Jeffrey Donaldson and others, who had appeared intent on bringing down much of the Good Friday Agreement. It was, however, a victory achieved at some cost, in that Mr Trimble has committed his party to a line which could result in a form of obstruction within the government, with his party seeking to exclude Sinn Fein ministers from north-south meetings.

Mr Trimble won the support of 53 per cent of the council at its last meeting in May. The whole exercise is to be repeated in January when the council meets to review progress.

The Ulster Unionist leader said after the meeting that republicans would only move on arms under serious pressure, adding: "The pressure has started gently, in the hope of doing the least possible damage to the institutions."

Mr Donaldson also claimed victory of a sort, saying: "I'm smiling because we made some progress today. We didn't get everything that we wanted but David Trimble has moved very firmly on to our ground now. I'll give it two months, and we'll be back here in January." As his words signalled, the Ulster Unionist Party seems destined to remain locked in an internal struggle about whether or not to remain in government with Sinn Fein.

Those against the Good Friday Agreement had wanted to impose a deadline of the end of November for withdrawal from the executive, but Mr Trimble argued that deadlines were counter-productive and would result in Unionists taking the blame for the fall of the government.

Mr Donaldson's ally William Ross MP indicated that a crisis had been postponed rather than averted, saying: "It comes down to a situation of whether you cut their throat, everybody's throat, on 30 November or 30 January."

Sinn Fein reacted angrily to Mr Trimble's scheme, with its national chairman, Mitchell McLaughlin, declaring: "What David Trimble said to the delegates is, 'Let's create the crisis, let's build towards suspension or withdrawal and let's blame republicans. That's the game plan.' "

He added: "This is going to play very badly in nationalist and republican circles. It is going to create enormous difficulties and it also plays into the hands of the more dissident republican elements."

* A man arrested during an Irish police investigation into the 1998 Omagh bombing has been charged with membership of an illegal organisation, the state broadcaster RTE reported yesterday.

Vincent McKevitte, 43, appeared before Dublin's Special Criminal Court on Saturday morning, charged with membership of the IRA. He was remanded in custody and will return to the special non-jury court on Friday, RTE said. Court officials were unavailable for comment.

McKevitte was one of three men arrested on Thursday near the town of Dundalk, close to the border with Northern Ireland. Police were probing the Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people in August 1998 in the bloodiest single episode in 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Real IRA, a republican splinter group opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process, claimed responsibility for the bombing. The guerrilla group includes former IRA members dissatisfied with the IRA's ceasefire and commitment to the peace process.

Police have arrested scores of suspects on both sides of the Irish border over the Omagh bombing but only one man has been ordered to stand trial.

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