Trimble under threat as Paisley prepares for talks

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The changing balance of power within Ulster Unionism will be on show in Belfast today as David Trimble braces himself for a leadership challenge in the wake of last week's Assembly elections.

The Rev Ian Paisley, whose Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) displaced Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party as the principal voice of Unionism, will, in the meantime, lead his team to meet the Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy.

Mr Murphy has acknowledged that it will not be easy to make early progress after an election which established the DUP and Sinn Fein as Northern Ireland's largest parties.

The deputy leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, denied it was a "wreckers' party". He said: "We will want to work with the Government in order to get stable and lasting political structures for Northern Ireland. A lot of people do seem to be very pessimistic."

Mr Paisley dismissed suggestions that he was about to be side-lined by the more pragmatic members of his party. He derided those who suggested that "Ian Paisley is past his best, he's ready for the grave, and then a band of glorious liberals will appear from the womb of nothingness and take over the DUP". But most other participants in the peace processcannot envisage Mr Paisley making a deal after such an uncompromising career. For the foreseeable future he is regarded as having an armlock on the prospects for progress, thanks to his decisive majority within the Unionist bloc.

Mr Murphy is resisting nationalist calls to lift the suspension of the Assembly. He said: "I don't think we should unsuspend it now. I don't think that would be wise. Everybody knows that if we restored the Assembly tomorrow then we would have six weeks according to the rules to establish a government. It doesn't take a political genius to work out it's highly unlikely." He added: "If [the DUP] really want devolution, they are going to have to talk with me and each other to try and sort out how they resolve governmentin Northern Ireland."

Talks are now expected to explore whether the DUP's demands for a renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement can be reconciled with those of the British and Irish governments which want a more limited review of its workings.

The question of Mr Trimble's survival is top of the agenda as his new Assembly party meets this morning. His principal internal critic, Jeffrey Donaldson, has called for him to consider his position. Today's meeting may reveal Mr Donaldson's tactics and whether he will opt to wait or go for an immediate assault on Mr Trimble's leadership. Mr Donaldson is outnumbered within the Assembly party, but some Trimble supporters might feel that the election result means it is time for him to go. Mr Trimble says he has no intention of departing.

The Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he would invite the DUP to talks. He said: "The election has thrown up some imponderables that we have to manage our way through but that is the will of the people of Northern Ireland and the two governments have to get on with it."

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