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Saturday, 27 May, 2000, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Returning to power

By BBC News Online's Gary Duffy

The narrow vote by the Ulster Unionists in favour of a return to power-sharing will be greeted with a huge sigh of relief in London, Dublin and Washington.

For months, if not years, it seemed as if the whole peace process might collapse over the key question of IRA weapons.

Unionists were determined not to share power with republicans unless they were convinced that the IRA had, in a convincing way, put its arsenal of guns and explosives beyond use.

Jeffrey Donaldson
Jeffrey Donaldson: Opposed Mr Trimble
The republican movement - Sinn Fein and the IRA - was equally adamant that it would not respond to a unionist agenda.

Quite simply, the view in republican circles was that the IRA had called an honourable ceasefire, and had not surrendered. Handing over any weapons to "the enemy" was out of the question.

The deadlock was substantially broken earlier this month when the IRA issued a statement agreeing to a process that would "completely and verifiably" put its guns "beyond use".

This would include allowing some arms dumps to be inspected by two international observers, the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and former ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa.

Unpredictable deputy

For many unionists this was not the proof they required that the IRA was, in a convincing way, leaving violence behind. But the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, decided to run with the deal.

Crucially Mr Trimble won the support of his often unpredictable deputy, John Taylor, who has substantial backing among the party grassroots.

The Ulster Unionist leader did face significant opposition, not least from the Lagan Valley, MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who was seen as a possible rival for his position.

There seems little doubt that had Mr Trimble lost the vote at Belfast's Waterfront Hall on Saturday, his position would have been untenable.

Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa: One of two independent weapons inspectors
But much more was at stake than that. The entire peace process has become bogged down over the issue of paramilitary weapons.

The 'D' word - decommissioning of weapons - was blocking all efforts to make political progress, even though in its brief period in office the Northern Ireland Executive showed politicians from all sides could work together.

That executive - suspended in February after just a few weeks - will now return to power from midnight on Monday.

It will include representatives from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland - unionist and nationalists, locally elected politicians making decisions normally made by ministers from London.

Mr Trimble's margin of victory was undoubtedly narrowed because of unionist anger over the future of the locally recruited police force, the RUC.

Unionist fears 'eased'

A review, begun after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, suggested the force should be renamed, with the most likely option now a variation on the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

But for unionists that was an insult to a police force that had held the line against the IRA through more than 30 years of violence at the cost of many lives.

Republicans were equally determined that a force which they regarded as serving the interests of only one side of the community should be disbanded.

For the moment the fears of some unionists on this issue appear to have eased, enough to allow people like John Taylor to vote for a return to government.

Hurdles ahead

This could prove to be a highly contentious political battleground in the weeks ahead when the legislation enacting the changes is debated at Westminster.

But despite the hurdles that lie ahead the peace process has now regained some lost momentum.

Unionist and nationalist politicians once again have the chance to prove that despite the legacy of 30 years of violence, they can work together.

Mr Trimble's supporters believe his party has in some respects been forced into a new maturity, recognising the need to share power with nationalists and republicans.

The vote was close and many rank-and-file unionists remain unconvinced. But for others the potential prosperity and security of a society breaking free from 30 years of violence was too good to lose, even if it meant sitting in government with the 'enemy'.

The broadest cross-section of political opinion ever to hold power in Northern Ireland is once again set to take up office.

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See also:

26 May 00 | Northern Ireland
BBC survey suggests close result
26 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Trimble: Rival plan unrealistic
26 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Donaldson challenge to devolution plan
26 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Donaldson letter: Full text
23 May 00 | Northern Ireland
IRA offer 'still on table'
23 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Trimble targets party grassroots
25 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Election defeat before key vote
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