David Trimble's opponents in his Ulster Unionist Party yesterday served notice that he will have a fight on his hands in any attempt to bring Sinn Fein into a new executive without a prior IRA arms handover.
Mr Trimble's announcement in Washington that he might form a new government without "guns up front" is seen as a significant new initiative that might revive a peace process which has been in real trouble of late. The Ulster Unionist leader said he was prepared to consider taking part in a new government without prior decommissioning.
He added: "It has to be against the background of absolute certainty that this time it will work and this time they will decommission within an appreciable period of time of the formation of the executive."
His words have been welcomed by supporters of the peace process, including the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the SDLP leader, John Hume. Mr Ahern, who described Mr Trimble's words as very helpful, is to press Sinn Fein for a positive response.
The initial republican reaction was, however, cautious and non-committal. Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said that they would wait and see the outcome of the UUP's annual conference next Saturday.
He added: "We have learnt some very bitter lessons over the past number of years. David Trimble has made a number of agreements in the past only to find himself reversed when he went back to his party."
Mr Trimble's move was received with anger and dismay by those in his party who insist on prior decommissioning and who generally do not favour devolution for Northern Ireland. Mr Trimble was said to have given no inkling to senior party members before making his move.
Opposition was voiced by three Ulster Unionist MPs, though there was support from Ken Maginnis MP. He said of republicans: "Quite honestly at the moment I don't think their thinking is up to it. I don't have the ability, but it's important that David Trimble spells out again that there is the opportunity. If we don't do that then we're basically saying, go back to your guns, go back to your guns."
The right-wing Unionist MP William Ross indicated he suspected that Mr Trimble was intent on "ignoring the clearly expressed wish of the Unionist party". He added: "That, of course, would put him on a collision course with the Ulster Unionist Party."
Jeffrey Donaldson MP said he would be "amazed and astonished" if the party accepted a proposal to take part in a new government without decommissioning, while the party's deputy leader, John Taylor MP, said he wished to speak to Mr Trimble before he commented.
The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Rev Ian Paisley, accused Mr Trimble of succumbing to American pressure, declaring: "Now he has changed completely and done another somersault. He is endangering the very life of democracy in this country."