- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

When the Ulster Unionist Council meets tomorrow, the pro-British political group will decide whether it wants to be a naysayer or vote to once again share a Northern Irish ruling government with Sinn Fein. At the beginning of the month, the IRA, which shares political goals with Sinn Fein, offered its first gesture of goodwill by saying it would allow its arms to be inspected by two international monitors to ensure they had been put beyond use. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble cautiously welcomed the offer, but now hardliners within his party are threatening to unravel the deal.

Two strong leaders within the party will be key determiners of tomorrow's vote: Deputy leader John Taylor and Jeffrey Donaldson. Mr. Taylor, who originally predicted the Unionists would accept the offer at a meeting originally scheduled for May 20, later encouraged the meeting to be put off while Unionists tried to score last minute concessions from the British on reforms to the police force, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

Mr. Donaldson, who has a long history of divisiveness and opposition to the Good Friday agreement, may divide the party tomorrow by offering a vague alternative plan. He won't outline what the plan entails, but is offering it as a counter to Mr. Trimble's assertion that those who vote "no" to the deal on Saturday provide no alternative. His plan is likely to be a shrewd political move designed to distract undecided council members. It could stall the peace process indefinitely.

The Unionists have already attained enough concessions from the British on the symbols of the Northern Irish police force to make the Catholic Republican community restless. In a policing bill published last week, the British agreed to allow the secretary of state to determine the emblem of the police force, the design of its flag and when and where the flag is flown. For a pro-British group for whom symbols are extremely important, such gestures on behalf of the British government are not meaningless. Now the Unionists are waiting to see if the British will come through with one final offer: keeping the name "Royal Ulster Constabulary" on the title deeds for the police force.

It is clear that the IRA will not keep its offer on the table indefinitely, and adding new conditions to acceptance of the deal by the day does nothing to aid the peace process. The good news is, two-thirds of grassroots Unionists support returning to the shared government following the IRA offer, according to a BBC poll released May 11. Now the Unionist council needs to reflect the constituency it is supposed to be representing in tomorrow's vote.

Trust has been violated on both sides. Joining Sinn Fein in a shared ruling body after the Catholic political group failed to get the IRA to disarm the first time they governed together will mean taking a serious risk. But as Mr. Trimble said in the London Sunday Times: "My view is that the IRA should be put to the test." Unionists will never know what peace is possible until they reach for it.

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