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David Trimble MP, UUP
"I understand the doubts and the reservations"
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Alex Maskie, Sinn Fein
"A major breakthrough"
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The DUP's Peter Robinson:
We will decide our strategy on certainties"
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Friday, 19 May, 2000, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK
Trimble begins devolution battle
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble
Trimble has a week to win party support
David Trimble has begun the battle to persuade his party to return to Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive alongside Sinn Fein.

The Ulster Unionist leader has said he was starting a process of dialogue with the community and the party to "address worries and misinformation" about the package of proposals to return to devolution.

On Thursday, Mr Trimble threw his weight behind the restoration of the suspended executive, saying he had received the assurances he needed to recommend the IRA offer to put its arms beyond use, to his party's ruling council.

The Search for Peace
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The meeting of the 860-member Ulster Unionist Council, scheduled for Saturday, has been postponed for a week until 27 May to give Mr Trimble and his supporters time to win over anti-agreement unionists in his party who remain opposed to the deal.

Both the British and Irish governments had hoped to see the power-sharing executive reinstated on Monday 22 May.

'Offer to start decommissioning'

Speaking to the BBC Mr Trimble said he did not want to "grandstand" and wanted people to consider the proposals "calmly".

He said in the past, republicans had behaved in a "niggardly" way refusing to honour their obligations under the Good Friday Agreement.

Seamus Mallon:
Seamus Mallon: "Time to convince doubters"
But he said that while he would not try to hoodwink unionists about the uncertainty of the IRA's offer, the only way to find out if it was genuine was to put them to the test.

"They have in this statement made a promise to society.

"They say that they will put their guns beyond use, completely and verifiably and in way that enhances public credibility and confidence. Let's go and find out if that's true."

Asked if he thought his leadership would be over if he did not win the UUC vote, Mr Trimble said he had repeatedly risked his position since the negotiations which led to the signature of the 1998 agreement.

However, Mr Trimble faces an uphill struggle to bring his party with him.

William Ross, one of five Ulster Unionist MPs who have written to the members of the UUC recommending they reject the deal, accused Mr Trimble of deserting the "no guns, no government" policy.

Anti-agreement UUP MP William Ross
William Ross: Unionists should not tolerate policy change
Mr Ross, Jeffrey Donaldson, Martin Smyth, Roy Beggs and William Thompson said endorsing the proposals would lead to severe election losses for the UUP and see the British identity removed from Northern Ireland.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster the East Londonderry MP said: "This is a question of the integrity of the party's approach and nothing has changed since the day the executive was suspended."

On David Trimble's leadership, Mr Ross said the party leader would need "a massive overwhelming vote for this change in policy".

'Grave of unionism'

Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley urged Ulster Unionists to vote against proposals which would not bring about decommissioning.

DUP leader Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley: "Trimble is salesman for IRA"
Speaking at a press conference at Stormont he said: "We have the leader of Ulster Unionism selling the IRA proposals and we have amazing statements made by the Unionist Party.

"They have dug the grave of unionism and now invite us to have a respectable burial of traditional unionism. The hole which Mr Trimble has dug for himself and the party, he will bury himself in."

He would not say whether his party would re-enter the executive if the Ulster Unionists did.

'Need to convince in-betweeners'

SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon said it was vital that Mr Trimble's supporters defeated party hardliners.

Peter Mandelson: Unionists must not throw away IRA offer
Peter Mandelson: Unionists must not throw away IRA offer
"What has got to be done, now, in the week that is open, is that those unionists who want to share power, who want to get on with the business of life here, who want to work this new dispensation, try and persuade the in-betweeners, those who have doubts and those who aren't committed anti- agreement people."

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson urged unionists to test the IRA offer.

"I think their crediblity and standing before the bar of political opinion, not just here, but around the world as well, has some importance to them," he said.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness welcomed the Ulster Unionist leader's "positive" recommendation for a return of the executive suspended in February.

The head of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland Doctor John Lockington said the possibility of a return to devolution presented the community with "very real challenges".

He said: "We believe that in many ways many people are interested in devolution against direct rule, they have seen the benefit of it.

"But there are still problems that people have, particularly with those who are in the executive who are inextricably linked with terrorist organisations."

Northern Ireland's political institutions were suspended by the government in February during the dispute between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein about IRA arms and continued power-sharing.

David Trimble had given his party a commitment that he would resign from the executive if the IRA had not started decommissioning.

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See also:

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