UUP showdown is looking inevitable

 

Has David Trimble lost the plot? Is he deliberately goading the Willies (Ross and Thompson) to challenge his leadership directly? Or is he close to doing a Faulkner - finally cutting his losses and formally splitting his party in a last bid to save the Good Friday accord?

These are the questions tantalising friends and foes alike as they attempt to divine the intent behind the Ulster Unionist leader's Washington initiative.

Gobsmacked in Belfast on Friday afternoon, some of his most loyal supporters were hoping the truth was as immediately divined by Gerry Adams.

As the chorus of anti-agreement outrage grew, these Trimbleistas comforted themselves that talk of a "fresh sequence" leading unionists back into government with Sinn Fein would prove so much St Patrick's Day spin - of no greater duration than the now-annual White House hangover.

It is not impossible. However, objective analysis suggests they, like Mr Adams, may be wrong. For certainly the price for a few positive headlines would seem disproportionately high.

Some in Mr Trimble's circle had urged him to skip Washington this year. Others had warned he might find himself "ambushed". But as the week progressed, such worries had subsided. After all the hype, it seemed there was no grand American plan.

And any feeling that Mr Trimble would come under pressure to make some overture to republicans had dissipated by Friday morning, as the travelling press corps wrote off any hopes of a sudden breakthrough.

Yet with a very few words, Mr Trimble had seemingly given legs to the Irish-led search for an "alternative context" in which the decommissioning issue might be addressed.

He had done so, moreover, while 4,000 miles from home; in the context of a distinctly green event; without prior notice to many of those presumed close to him; and while his aides and allies fretted about the prospects for an already problematic meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on Saturday.

As an exercise in party management, certainly, Mr Trimble's timing alone beggared belief on all sides.

The inquest will begin this morning with a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Assembly Party at Stormont, and there may be signs there of a rethink. In Saturday's News Letter, Mr Trimble dismissed immediate press coverage of his Washington comments as misleading, insisting that if anything he had toughened his position on IRA decommissioning. In saying he would be prepared to enter the executive without guns on the table he was merely restating the position of last November. But he said he would only do so a second time "if there is no doubt that guns are coming". But how is that doubt to be dispelled? Mr Ken Maginnis, in a barely coded warning to Mr Trimble on Friday, was clear: "Only a positive answer to Seamus Mallon's question, `Do the IRA intend to disarm and, if so, when?' can establish the basis for Sinn Fein's re-entry into any Stormont executive."

However, there is a clear tension between Mr Maginnis and other pro-agreement unionists, who have now concluded that any attempt to impose a time-specific commitment on the republican leadership will not work. In fact, the disagreement extends much further. Some UUP assembly members now privately admit that decommissioning was the wrong issue on which to test the republican commitment to peace, and that to persist with the "no guns, no government" policy is to guarantee the achievement of neither.

But if these arguments now hold sway with Mr Trimble, his comments in the US would appear to indicate a willingness to significantly recast the party's approach to the arms issue. If, on the other hand, on returning to Belfast he finds himself in apparent retreat - either because it was just a public relations gambit or because of the ferocity of the reaction - nationalist and republican belief in him as a man who can deliver will be further diminished.

That would seem a high and needless price to pay if, in fact, there was no intent to signal any policy shift - and if the only other net result is to find him expending his energies in the days preceding his annual meeting battling new levels of doubt and distrust within his party.

At this writing the minimum-damage assessment appears to be that Mr Trimble has significantly boosted Mr David Burnside's bid to tie retention of the RUC's "royal" title to any return to the executive.

Mr Maginnis has opposed this move, insisting it would make the Ulster Unionists a "single issue" party and immobilise the entire political process for a long time to come.

As such, the RUC motion, to be debated at Saturday's second, emergency meeting, had appeared far more threatening to the Trimble camp than any "stalking horse" challenger at the annual meeting.

The momentum for a stalking horse challenge had already begun to fade pre-Washington. At their weekly meeting last Wednesday night - in Mr Trimble's Commons room, with his deputy, Mr John Taylor, in his chair - seven of the UUP's 10 MPs decided they would not sponsor a direct tilt against the leader.

Post-Washington, it seems, all bets might be off. Moreover, speculation has resumed that Mr Ross, the East Londonderry MP, might be contemplating a serious leadership bid which, at the very least, could advance the moment of a formal split and consequent realignment within unionism.

These issues are once again under serious discussion behind the scenes. On the right, there is a growing sense that the present standoff cannot hold as the imperatives of a general election year hover into view. On what might be called the left, likewise, there is detectable impatience at the constraints imposed on the assembly party by the Ulster Unionist Council.

And on both sides there is an increasingly open recognition that, if not on Saturday, then soon, the Ulster Unionist Council will provide the setting for the final showdown. The only question is which side will inherit the title.