Ulster's Choice

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Once more Northern Ireland is at a crucial junction on the road to peace once more the outcome rests on people like Avril and Roderick Swann. Roderick is a friendly, savvy local councilor who loves to play golf when he can get away from looking after 120 head of cattle. His wife Avril, a kind, no-nonsense retired university lecturer in business and management, chairs the local Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) association from their farmhouse at the end of a long dirt road in Dunsilly, County Antrim. On Saturday, they will drive 30 kms southeast to Belfast for a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council (UUC) to decide whether the UUP re-enters Northern Ireland's suspended government or stays out and puts the peace process into another dead end.

UUP leader David Trimble sought the meeting because of a startling decision by the Irish Republican Army. Its failure to turn over any weapons or offer a timetable for doing so had undercut Trimble's gamble in joining the executive last November and led Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson to suspend it in February, after only 72 days of operation. But after British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern held talks with Trimble and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams two weeks ago, the I.R.A. issued a surprise statement saying it would "initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put I.R.A. arms beyond use." And it offered tangible proof of its goodwill: "Within weeks ... the contents of a number of our arms dumps will be inspected by agreed third parties .... The dumps will be re-inspected regularly to ensure that the weapons have remained silent."

It wasn't exactly the decommissioning set out in the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which promised that by next week an international commission would have already overseen the destruction of all paramilitary weapons. But it's a lot more than the I.R.A. has ever offered. That put the onus on Trimble's party to rejoin the government, which Mandelson announced he will restart next week.

That's where the Swanns come in, because the 860-strong UUC must vote on the deal before Trimble can lead his fellow Unionist Assembly members back into the executive. It's no sure thing. Last fall only 58% backed Trimble joining the government for a few months to test whether the I.R.A. was serious about decommissioning. In March, he faced a leadership challenge from anti-agreement forces; 57% supported him, fewer than he expected. Neither of the Swanns has decided for sure how to vote on Saturday. Avril is leaning toward backing a re-entry into government; Roderick is leaning against. The I.R.A.'s offer to allow inspection of three arms dumps looks to him like "tokenism." But like a lot of other UUC delegates, he thinks "it's a step in the right direction," and his mind is still open. All last week Trimble struggled with Blair and Mandelson to fill in the blanks in the I.R.A.'s statement so he could persuade more swing voters. He wasn't satisfied with what he heard, and said he would need more clarifications from Blair this week before deciding what to advise the UUC to do.

First, how will the weapons checks work? Two distinguished figures have agreed to be the independent inspectors, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and the former secretary-general of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa. But their duties are not yet clear enough. Will they be driven blindfolded to the dumps? How many more won't they be allowed to see? Will the guns and Semtex be counted and electronically tagged by aides to make sure they stay locked up? Ramaphosa told Time, "I don't really know the details of my role until I get there." That's planned for early this week. Most of all, anti-agreement Unionists fear that these inspections will be the I.R.A.'s final move rather than a first step. Gavin Adams, who used to head the Young Unionists and ran unsuccessfully for a local council seat in Antrim, was "stunned" by the offer but worries that "instead of crossing the Rubicon, they've dipped their big toe into it."

UUC skeptics have other complaints. To many, Mandelson's plan to rename the Royal Ulster Constabulary the Police Service of Northern Ireland to attract Catholics into a force many see as their enemy is a deal breaker. They're also embittered by Sinn Fein ministers' refusal to fly the British flag over their government buildings, and by continuing I.R.A. punishment beatings. "What Mandelson and Trimble are doing is like appeasement in the 1930s, a continuing sellout to terrorists," says John Hunter, a Belfast barrister. He plans to vote no on Saturday.

But if Trimble is willing to push a proposal for re-entering government, he is likely to prevail. He can take comfort from a bbc poll showing that, for the first time, a majority of people in Northern Ireland think the war is over. And though the UUC is harder-line than his party as a whole, two-thirds of Ulster Unionists want to participate in the executive.

From the Swanns' farmhouse, the perils of staying outside the Good Friday agreement look worse than the compromises necessary to make it work. "People don't really like to change, but you have to be realistic," says Avril. "If Sinn Fein is in government, they're accountable. I think they're in a stronger position to hold a gun to our heads if they're outside."

Her job is to contest local elections in south Antrim, which reflects the whole of Ulster in its growing prosperity and increasing Catholic population. Sinn Fein doubled its vote in a recent local election, and she thinks "our party is suffering." She fears its leading officials are aging and its youth movement is extreme (33 out of 34 of them voted to oust Trimble at the last UUC meeting). While campaigning door-to-door she finds that Sinn Fein is managing to convey a vigorous, progressive image to younger voters who don't remember the worst of the Troubles. "The only way we are going to attract the young is to have real progress through devolved government where we can fight the issues," like better health care and more university places.

Their son Jonathan, 27, is taking over the farm and was enthusiastic about visiting the Assembly before the government was suspended to lobby for more agricultural support. "He was disappointed when it was shut down," says his mother. "He and his friends have no interest in old-fashioned politics, in just saying no. They want a better life." When she goes to vote next Saturday, it is Jonathan's generation Avril will be thinking about.