Trimble's future is hanging on local polls

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Indy Politics

David Trimble's future as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party will hang in the balance today and tomorrow as votes are counted in the Northern Irish local government polls.

Another bad result for the party after its general election reversal ­ in which it lost three seats­ would increase the chances of a leadership challenge at the annual meeting of the UUP Council on 23 June.

Only a slim majority of the UUP is in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, leaving Mr Trimble vulnerable over policy and electoral performance. In the meantime, talks on decommissioning paramilitary weapons and other thorny issues are due to open next week.

The next few weeks will be a time of even greater uncertainty than is normal in the Northern Ireland peace process. Its supporters will be pondering whether the process can hope to accommodate Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP, triumphant after winning five Westminster seats, is aiming to get Sinn Fein out of government, unless there is "immediate" decommissioning of IRA weapons.

Mr Trimble urged the Ulster Unionists to "hold their nerve", repeating his pledge to resign as First Minister on 1 July unless the IRA began decommissioning. He declared: "I'm not scared of a challenge. As always, my position is up for re-election. I will be offering myself again for that position and if anyone else from within the party wishes to challenge me, so be it."

One of the new DUP MPs, Nigel Dodds, said the election had shown that most Unionists did not want Sinn Fein to be in government without decommissioning. Calling for a complete overhaul of the Good Friday Agreement, Mr Dodds said: "There's going to have to be a fundamental look at the basis on which this process operates. It enjoys the support of nationalists, but it doesn't enjoy the support of the clear majority of Unionists and it can't have stability on that basis."

He said: "Trimble has basically run out of credibility and he is now running out of votes. The writing is on the wall."

However, Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, which last week won two more seats at Westminster, said he did not believe the Agreement was in jeopardy but there was a duty on everyone to work together. He said: "I think many of the difficulties and problems that are out there, whether it be the need to bring about a new beginning to policing, the issue of demilitarisation and how we get armed groups to put weapons beyond use, can be resolved."

Meanwhile, nationalist and loyalist youths hurled stones at each other as trouble flared on the Limestone Road area in the north of Belfast, police said.

A Royal Ulster Constabulary spokeswoman said police had quickly restored order. But Gerry Kelly, a Sinn Fein Assembly member, claimed loyalist paramilitaries of the Ulster Defence Association had been present and were orchestrating the clashes in a bid to cause trouble in the run-up to the Orange Order's annual parades. * Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern are to have talks on the peace process and other issues at this week's European summit in Gothenburg, Sweden. The meeting will examine the election returns in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic's shock referendum rejection of the EU's Treaty of Nice last week.

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