London (CNSNews.com) - A day before Northern Ireland's largest unionist party votes on whether to approve a compromise deal to salvage the frozen peace process, a survey shows the party split down the middle.
The future of the peace process - and the political future of Ulster Unionist Party leader and Nobel Prize winner David Trimble - could be affected by Saturday's crucial vote.
A Daily Telegraph survey Friday shows the UUP's 860-member council split almost exactly 50-50 over the arrangement that unionists should join a power-sharing executive for the province before paramilitary groups begin the process of surrendering their weapons used in the sectarian conflict.
The newspaper says the deal hammered out by American mediator George Mitchell during 11 weeks of talks would be "dead and buried" if the party council rejects it - no devolution of power from London to the provincial executive, and no disarmament.
The survey was based on estimates provided by local constituency associations and other organizations that send delegates to the council.
It shows the "no" camp far stronger than expected. It gave Trimble a four percent majority among the 688 constituency delegates - who are expected to back their leader - but almost two-thirds of the remaining 174 delegates, representing various organizations and affiliates, look set to vote "no."
The largest single group, making up 120 of these 174 delegates, is the traditionalist Orange Order. Its vote is seen as pivotal.
Trimble's predecessor as UUP leader, Lord Molyneaux, has sent letters urging party members to vote "no." Adding to Trimble's woes was a fake letter circulated to council members, purportedly from his main political rival, the leader of the republican Sinn Fein party.
The letter has "Gerry Adams" tell council members, "You know in your heart of hearts that Britain wants out of Ireland as soon as possible."
Trimble dismissed the letter as a fake aimed at boosting the "no" vote, and Sinn Fein denied authorship.
The decades-long "Troubles" has pitted pro-British, mostly Protestant unionists, against republicans wanting a united Ireland under Irish rule. The Irish Republican Army, affiliated to Sinn Fein, has spearheaded the violence, although loyalist unionist groups have also waged terrorism.
The Good Friday Agreement brokered last year by Mitchell provides for a power-sharing executive on which the rival parties will sit.
London was due to hand over power on December 2, and Trimble was expected to be First Minister. Simultaneously, the IRA was to announce the appointment of a representative to negotiate with an arms decommissioning body in the handover of its weapons.