New pressure to back Trimble on devolution deal

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The Independent Online

Ulster Unionists agonising over the Stormont devolution-disarmament deal faced new pressure today to back David Trimble.

Ulster Unionists agonising over the Stormont devolution-disarmament deal faced new pressure today to back David Trimble.

As the party's ruling council prepared for Saturday's crucial vote, up to 300 clergy in Northern Ireland met with pro-Agreement parties in Belfast to pledge their support.

Senior officials believe a majority of the 860 delegates will come out in favour of a power sharing executive being set up in advance of a start to IRA decommissioning.

Mr Trimble and the Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson were heckled by a crowd of hardliners in Portadown, Co Armagh last night, confirming the serious and lingering doubts among many Unionists that the Provisionals will eventually empty their secret arms dumps.

The loyalist paramilitary Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) today announced they would not appoint a go-between to work the International Commission on Decommissioning until the IRA began direct negotiations with General John de Chastelain, who is heading up the body.

The British and Irish Governments have already warned the Stormont Assembly will be suspended if republicans fail to deliver on weapons.

Unionists backing Mr Trimble are looking for some sort of handover fairly quickly after the planned transfer of legislative powers from London to Belfast next week.

Senior Ulster Unionists today said they were not prepared to predict the result of Saturday's vote, but many believe Mr Trimble will get the council's go-ahead to enter an administration with Sinn Fein.

One said: "There is a quiet confidence the leadership will get its way. There has been a positive feedback, particularly in the rural the areas."

Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party, the UFF's political wing, said the Ulster Unionists should now seize the opportunity to move into a new political era, leaving the IRA with no option but to disarm.

He said: "This is a sensible way forward. If people can come up with a more intelligent, rational and practical way to achieve devolved power and tying the IRA into a decommissioning process, let's hear it."

But the pro-Trimble factions were also warned today not regard Saturday's result as a foregone conclusion.

Stephen King, a special adviser to the Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor, who has deep reservations about the devolution-decommissioning formula, claimed one-third of the party's council supported the leader and one-third were against.

In today's Irish Times he wrote: "As I have found myself, it is a mistake to take the Ulster Unionist Council for granted, even when the tide does seem to be running strongly in one direction."

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