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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 17:18 GMT

UK: Northern Ireland

The road ahead for Trimble

David Trimble: Has improved the image of unionists internationally

By BBC NI's political correspondent Martina Purdy

The task facing David Trimble should not be underestimated. He is being asked to go further than any other past unionist leader.

History has shown that unionist leaders, who have compromised even less than Mr Trimble, failed to survive. Indeed, the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive of 1974 was brought down by hardliners.

This effectively ended the career of Brian Faulkner, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. At that time, most unionists were not ready to share power with the SDLP.

Twenty five years on, the majority may be ready for the SDLP but can they stomach Sinn Fein in government, with or without IRA weapons being decommissioned? That is the question facing Mr Trimble.

To survive, Mr Trimble is going to have to inspire confidence in his leadership and persuade unionists that their best interest lies in taking a risk.

And that he is not about to sell them out. As an academic, who came to the leadership as a hardliner, Mr Trimble is not a natural salesman, nor a natural inspirational leader.

But unionists do appreciate Mr Trimble has improved the image of unionists internationally, signalled by his acceptance last year of the Nobel prize.

And, by displaying a positive attitude, he has won influence with the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

What is on offer to unionists

What is on offer to unionists is not a guarantee that decommissioning is going to happen but a chance to achieve the goal through a series of interlocking steps.

The process has become the vehicle through which Mr Trimble hopes to achieve his aims. There is growing speculation that he will tell the party that he will resign his position if disarmament does not occur.

This could signal to grassroots unionists just how confident Mr Trimble is of achieving his aim of decommissioning.

It is believed that the sequencing is going to require Mr Trimble to nominate ministers to a power-sharing Executive within the next two weeks.

Entering government with Sinn Fein is advance of decommissioning would be a breach of party policy. And it obliges the leader to go back to his party for approval.

The ultimate authority of the unionist party is its ruling council. This consists of 1,000 members who can unseat the leader.

The council backed the Good Friday Agreement by around 70% in the aftermath of the deal. Whether the leader can match this again is questionable. Mr Trimble says it is not yet appropriate to go to the council.

He may be waiting for more sequencing steps, for example, words from Sinn Fein and the IRA to underpin his position. It is believed the council meeting could take place as soon as November 27.

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