London (CNSNews.com) - Northern Ireland faces a make-or-break vote Saturday by pro-British Protestant unionists who must decide whether or not to re-enter a Northern Ireland coalition government with Catholic republicans.
The vote has the potential to split the Ulster Unionist Party in two, critics of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement have warned.
Friday, a key opponent of the pact presented UUP leader David Trimble with a proposed alternative to the motion, which will be considered at Saturday's crucial meeting of the party's 860-member ruling council
Jeffrey Donaldson, who together with Trimble helped negotiate the Good Friday accord before walking out in opposition to the final deal, is keeping quiet about his alternative while he lobbies council members.
But he said acceptance of a British government plan to return to power-sharing could split the UUP down the middle.
All Donaldson would say about his plan was that it dealt with disarmament and devolved government in the province, and would provide a "better" proposal than the one currently offered.
Just 72 days after it was instituted, the Northern Ireland executive was suspended by Britain in February after the main republican paramilitary group, the Irish Republican Army, failed to disarm.
In a recent round of diplomacy, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the British and Irish prime ministers, tried to break the deadlock.
An IRA offer to put its weapons "beyond use" was seized upon as a sufficient step to get the home rule process restarted. Trimble will try to persuade his party council that the offer is genuine and should be accepted.
Donaldson said he was hearing complaints from inside the UUP that the IRA offer was not enough, and did not constitute a clear commitment to disarm.
An armed "loyalist" counterpart to the IRA, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, has also expressed skepticism about the IRA's intentions, warning it would "resist" any attempts to end what it called the British identity of Northern Ireland.
Both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups are expected to disarm as a result of the peace process. The mainstream groups on either side are honoring a ceasefire.
A new opinion poll suggests that Trimble may win the day Saturday. More than 60 per cent of respondents who said they were UUP supporters indicated they would vote in favor of the agreement, according to the poll carried out by the Queen's University in Belfast.
But some 20 percent of UUP council members are understood to be still undecided, Trimble's deputy, John Taylor, among them.
White House denial
Apart from the weapons issue, unionists are also unhappy about proposed changes to the police service in the province, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
They say plans to change its name and badge to remove pro-British associations are a slap in the face of a force that has withstood the brunt of republican terrorism over the past three decades.
Republicans say the police force is hostile to their community. The proposed changes will change the balance of recruits to the RUC, currently weighed heavily in favor of the Protestant community.
Both the British and U.S. governments Thursday denied a British newspaper report, which said President Clinton has rebuffed appeals from Blair to use his influence to persuade Irish republicans to make concessions on the RUC issue.
The Guardian this week cited unnamed officials as saying Clinton had twice turned down Blair's requests for intervention.
\plain\lang2057\f2\fs23\cf0 "Clinton told Blair straight: not every issue is negotiable," it quoted one official close to the talks as saying.
National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley called the story "a complete fabrication" and reiterated Clinton's support for efforts to get the Good Friday accord fully implemented.
The sectarian conflict has cost 3,600 lives.