IRA's move will give Trimble a surge of support

The IRA's act of putting weapons beyond use appears to have greatly increased the standing and authority of the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, within his own party.

The critics who have attacked Mr Trimble's leadership and his policy of persevering with the Good Friday Agreement have been silent or muted in the wake of the IRA decommissioning move.

His announcement yesterday that he is reinstating the three ministers from his party who resigned from the Belfast executive is the first of a series of necessary procedural and political moves. He will need all of his enhanced authority to overcome the hurdles.

On Saturday, he will seek a renewed mandate from an emergency meeting of his party executive. Next week, he will himself stand for re-election as Northern Ireland's First Minister in the Assembly.

Early indications are that the IRA's eventual delivery of decommissioning, which has for years been the primary demand of Mr Trimble and his party, means he can rely on new support from the ranks.

But he may be a vote or two short next week, given that several of the members are known for their rebellious tendencies. This means his supporters will have their fingers crossed until the last minute, and if he wins it may be a slightly undignified scramble.

Saturday's executive meeting may be asked to instruct the party's Assembly members to vote en bloc for Mr Trimble. He may also have the support of another minor Unionist party in the Assembly.

The MP Jeffrey Donaldson, Mr Trimble's most persistent critic and also most obvious potential successor, has not so far given his opinion on whether the IRA move is enough to transform the situation. Another prominent figure, David Burnside, also refrained from taking a firm position on the IRA move yesterday.

The Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party has rejected the decommissioning move as "smoke and mirrors", but so far no significant voices within the Unionist party have rejected it in such terms. This is, in itself, unusual, in that party discipline is notoriously lax, with critics of the leadership generally feeling free to voice dissenting opinions in public.

Mr Trimble was badly in need of a boost, since his support within the party has drained away over recent years.

In 1998 he successfully sold the Good Friday Agreement to his party's ruling Ulster Unionist Council, winning the endorsement of 72 per cent of delegates. In 2000 he fended off a leadership challenge from a 69-year-old anti-Agreement candidate by 57 per cent to 43 per cent. Two months later he won a crucial Council vote by only 53 per cent to 47 per cent.

As these figures suggest, opinion at most levels of the party has become steadily more anti-Agreement, with a corresponding drop in confidence in Mr Trimble.

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