Ulster on brink again as Trimble faces knife-edge vote

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The Northern Ireland peace process returns to the brink today with a vital and unpredictable knife-edge vote in the Belfast Assembly on David Trimble's return as First Minister.

Last night he was trailing by a few crucial votes, after one of his Assembly members announced she would not support him in the vote.

If the Ulster Unionist leader loses, the peace process will be plunged into yet another crisis, leaving the British Government either to suspend the Belfast administration or to call fresh elections.

The vote will take place against opinion poll findings which are discouraging for supporters of the process. It indicated a majority of Protestant and Unionist voters do not regard the recent act of IRA decommissioning as significant.

Mr Trimble is certain of an overall majority today but under the Assembly's singular rules he must also get a majority of both nationalist and Unionist members.

The Ulster Unionist Assembly member Pauline Armitage said she would not vote for Mr Trimble, saying of the weapons issue: "I think we are really leaving decommissioning to the IRA. They are calling the tune." Another dissident member, Peter Weir, will not say which way he will vote.

Some members of smaller parties have said they will support the Ulster Unionist leader, but last night he was still short of votes. He may, however, be able to pick up the required support during a morning of politicking which is expected to see heated procedural argument and attempts to change the Assembly's voting rules.

The result is so close that it could depend on whether all members of the smaller Unionist parties turn up for the vote. The cross-community Women's Coalition has said one of its two members hopes to change her official Assembly designation to that of Unionist. The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party has threatened to stop this through legal action, denouncing the coalition as "drag queen Unionists".