Trimble gets boost as he faces critics opposed to peace deal

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The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble received a significant psychological boost on the eve of the latest challenge from party critics when an opinion poll suggested he had the support of 68 per cent of party voters.

The Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble received a significant psychological boost on the eve of the latest challenge from party critics when an opinion poll suggested he had the support of 68 per cent of party voters.

The finding came as he faces yet another make-or-break assault from party critics opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, who will today demand that he pull out of government before Christmas if the IRA does not decommission arms.

The fact that Mr Trimble prevailed at a similar meeting of his party's ruling council in May by a margin of just 53 per cent to 47 means the outcome of this morning's meeting is regarded as too close to call.

The poll, in the Belfast Telegraph, found that 68 per cent of Unionist party voters believe Mr Trimble and his colleagues should remain in the Northern Ireland executive, with only 27 per cent saying he should pull out. It also placed him well ahead of his principal party rival Jeffrey Donaldson MP, the most prominent spokesman for the anti-agreement camp. Fifty-nine per cent of Unionist party voters favour Mr Trimble as leader, only 29 per cent preferring Mr Donaldson.

Mr Trimble's problem, however, is that the council is seen as being more anti-Agreement than party voters as a whole.

The meeting will take place against a background of increasingly bitter exchanges between Mr Trimble and Mr Donaldson. The party leader described as "a letter to Santa" the demands put forward by his critic, who responded by claiming that attempts he had made to build a consensus in the party had been "rubbished". Mr Trimble's unpredictable deputy, John Taylor MP, took a very different line from his leader, however, saying that many of Mr Donaldson's proposals had considerable merit.

Apparently attempting to position himself between their positions, he added: "There is scope for negotiation and agreement leading to unanimity at the council meeting. I urge an all-out effort today to reach that agreement." A motion put down by Mr Donaldson for the meeting calls for Unionist ministers to pull out of the Northern Ireland executive by Christmas if the IRA has not begun to decommission weapons.

* Three men were yesterday arrested for questioning about the Omagh bombing which killed 29 people in 1998. They were detained in the border town of Dundalk, Co Louth.

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