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David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party is something close to a shambles at the moment, with public spats between senior members and opposing wings who are for and against the Good Friday agreement. One slip by the leader could bring open rebellion and a motion of no confidence.

The party is still smarting from a European election result which represented a historic low for its support: this, together with all the in-fighting, means that morale and self-confidence has taken a battering.

Mr Trimble (left) has just publicly re-committed himself to a position of "no guns, no government," vowing that he will not lead an executive including Sinn Fein until republicans begin to de-commission weapons.

This means that the coming negotiation is shaping up to be particularly tough for him, given that most of the other elements involved appear to have concluded that prior IRA de-commissioning is not a realistic prospect.

The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party is on the crest of a wave at the moment, the old warhorse having retained his traditional position at the top of the poll in the European election.

His victory, coupled as it was with the poor showing of David Trimble's candidate, has sent a shudder through the ranks of pro-Good Friday agreement elements who fear the figures may denote a decisive shift in Protestant opinion.

Although Mr Paisley (right) is the great nay-sayer, his party's position on the Belfast assembly is not straightforward. While his party members do not want Sinn Fein in government they want to keep the assembly alive, and they would certainly take up the two executive seats to which they are entitled.

The party will not be involved in the coming negotiation but, from the sidelines, it will stand as a baleful reminder to Mr Trimble that almost anything he signs up for will be denounced as treachery and sell-out.

The major loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association, remain on ceasefire though everyone knows their structures remain intact and that they carry out occasional acts of violence.

Both are said to be involved in "punishment" beatings and shootings in the Belfast ghetto backstreets. In recent months the UDA is believed to have engaged in a number of attempted killings while the UVF has carried out one murder attempt.

The UDA in particular is regarded as having become less closely committed to the peace process, though there is no real sign that it is bent on re-starting its sectarian campaign. The UVF is viewed as being much more on board, having political spokesmen David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson as assembly members. The former also chalked up a healthy European vote.

Renegade loyalist splinter groups have been the major source of violence over the last nine months, having killed a policeman, a Catholic man, a Protestant grandmother who was married to a Catholic, and solicitor Rosemary Nelson.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force, formerly headed by the assassinated Billy Wright, was reportedly responsible for the deaths of Mrs Nelson and the grandmother. The group last year declared a ceasefire and became the only organisation ever to de-commission weapons, handing over some guns. The authorities now regard this as no more than a cynical ploy.

Two other shadowy groups, the Red Hand Defenders and Orange Volunteers, have emerged during the past year. They are said to be largely composed of disgruntled former members of larger groups which they now regard as being overly pacific. Together they have carried out over one hundred petrol-bomb and pipe-bomb attacks on Catholic homes.


The republican movement, made up of Sinn Fein and the IRA, remains committed to the Good Friday agreement and seeks to enter government as soon as possible. Sinn Fein polled well in the European election in the Northern Ireland and also increased its vote in recent contests in the Republic, where it seems to be gaining an electoral foothold.

Both Sinn Fein and the IRA have remained adamant all along that the Good Friday agreement does not require de-commissioning before an executive is formed. In fact, both have declined to promise that there will ever be de-commissioning at all: the furthest they have gone is to indicate vaguely that something might conceivably be possible at some undefined future stage.

The republicans have remained silent in the face of allegations that the IRA was behind the killings of three men around the south Armagh area. One was a former "supergrass" while the others were alleged drug dealers.

The Social Democratic and Labour party finds itself in the middle, shuttling between the unionists and Sinn Fein in the hope of finding a middle way through the de-commissioning impasse.

Party leader John Hume (left) polled well in the European contest, almost pipping Ian Paisley for top spot. Both he and his deputy Seamus Mallon, who will become David Trimble's deputy if and when a new executive is set up, are showing signs of intense frustration with the glacial pace of the peace process.

A successful outcome in the negotiation would vindicate the party's three decades of seeking to have a new cross-community partnership government run Northern Ireland.

Renegade republican groups still lurk in the paramilitary undergrowth, opposing both the mainstream IRA's ceasefire and the peace process in general. The best-known is the so-called Real IRA, which was responsible for the Omagh bombing in which 29 people died in August of last year.

It subsequently declared a ceasefire, but militant elements are said to have drifted towards another small group, the Continuity IRA, which is not on ceasefire. Some dissident members of another group which is on ceasefire, the Irish National Liberation Army, may also be involved in talks aimed at bringing into a being a new organisation to keep the republican war going.

This nebulous grouping appears strongest in and around south Armagh with outcroppings in Belfast. Overall, however, its numbers are small.


London and Dublin appear to be working more closely together than for years, which is hardly surprising in that they have arrived at a common policy: whatever works. The two governments are essentially fed up with the apparently endless bickering and exasperated that the new executive has been held up for so long.

They would be delighted if the IRA de-commissioned; they would be equally delighted if David Trimble agreed to set up an executive without de-commissioning. The arms issue was deliberately fudged in the Good Friday agreement, and both Dublin and London are

frustrated that resolving it has taken so long.

There have been several determined but unsuccessful attempts to sort out the problem: Tony Blair is now adamant that this is the last chance before a potentially dangerous summer.

Analysis by David McKittrick