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Friday, 19 November, 1999, 11:30 GMT
Selling the settlement
Party council vote may decide David Trimble's fate as leader

By BBC NI political editor Stephen Grimason

The end of former US senator George Mitchell's involvement in the peace process also marked the beginning of another crucial phase - the selling of a settlement.

It was the senator himself who was the chief salesman for the deal he brokered between Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

The carefully choreographed series of steps leading to government and a resolution of the decommissioning issue had been agreed in principle almost a week ago by the principal parties, but where was the unionist selling process?

Just like the Good Friday Agreement, which the Ulster Unionists had signed up to and then offered to the electorate almost without approval, the Trimble-Adams deal appeared to have few friends in the UUP, at least officially.

"Whatever you say, say nothing," was the catchphrase for the pro-agreement unionists for several days while the "No" camp had a clear run.

George Mitchell: stinging attack on unionists opposed to Agreement
Enter George Mitchell. Hours before he boarded his last flight out of Belfast (he hopes) he released his final report after almost eleven weeks of some of the most secret and sensitive talks in Northern Ireland's history.

But he also launched a stinging attack on those in unionism who oppose the Good Friday Agreement.

To those who pointed out there was no guarantee republicans would decommission their weapons he had a point of his own to make.

Using an Ulster phrase he had never heard before he came to the province he said "the dogs in the street" knew the only way to secure decommissioning was the sign up to the Trimble-Adams deal.

To reject it, he argued, was to make sure decommissioning would never happen.

His words were clearly intended to aid David Trimble as he prepares to put the proposals to his ruling Ulster Unionist Council.

Fate of the deal

Its vote will decide whether the deal will survive and also whether Mr Trimble, and even the party, will survive.

The words are also an indication of the sort of strategy the Ulster Unionist leader may employ in securing wider agreement among his party faithful.

He faces a daunting task.

Whatever way you play around with the words, Ulster Unionists believe when Mr Trimble said "no guns, no government," he meant Sinn Fein could only enter the Assembly Executive if the IRA disposed of its weapons at the same time - "jumping together" as it was called.

Gerry Adams: Deal to put republicans in government
The deal he has agreed in principle with Gerry Adams put republicans in government before there is any decommissioning.

He is, in effect, accepting a promise it will happen but with no timescale.

He could argue a technical, legal definition of decommissioning that says the process of decommissioning begins with the appointment of an IRA go-between and the international decommissioning body.

But that is unlikely to impress many in his party.

One strategy being considered is to simply admit to ditching his previously held position on the grounds it was not working and that the new deal is more likely to succeed.

Leader issue

Instead of the debate being stuck in a sterile "did he or didn't he change his position" argument the focus could then move on to the issue of David Trimble himself, which is where Senator Mitchell left us.

Mr Trimble knows even some of his dissidents believe he is the best leader the party has and that his opponents within Ulster Unionism are unlikely to be able to unite the grass roots any better than he already does.

He could ask if MPs like William Ross and Jeffrey Donaldson would be any more successful in securing IRA weapons; republicans would probably give their own derisive answer to such a query.

Whatever happens, something has got to give. Either the party backs Mr Trimble and goes into government with Sinn Fein with the attendant danger of a possible split or it rejects the deal, Mr Trimble quits and the UUP might just implode.

We are, as always, in Northern Ireland living in interesting times.


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