It was somehow fitting in the strange world of Northern Ireland politics that the ruling council of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) had to rush its climactic meeting to settle whether the party should now re-enter the province's suspended government.
The stakes couldn't have been higher: rejoin, and the peace process created by the 1998 Good Friday agreement would go forward; refuse, and not only would pro-agreement UUP leader David Trimble be humiliated, perhaps to the point of resignation, but the peace process would go into a death spiral. But Belfast's Waterfront Hall had already been booked for Verdi's opera Aida. No matter how passionately the 862 delegates wanted to keep arguing, they had to finish by 2 p.m. to allow the show to go on. The sober-sided representatives of Ulster Protestantism gave their speeches in front of mummy cases and statues already placed on the set. To Sammy Wilson, a member of the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party, the backdrop was delicious. Aida "is about jealousy, betrayal and treachery," he said. "And in the end they're buried alive."
When the fat lady sang, it was Trimble who won, 459-403. But the slim 53%-47% victory guaranteed that the "no" delegates, many of whom invoked the memories of relatives killed by the I.R.A. in their speeches, would rise again to try to topple him.
It was an uphill struggle for Trimble from the start — surprising, perhaps, because he sought the vote only after the Irish Republican Army made a new offer on decommissioning weapons last month that many Ulster Unionists considered a breakthrough. For the first time, the I.R.A. promised to "initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put I.R.A. arms beyond use." And it sealed its promise with an offer to let international inspectors keep tabs on three arms dumps. It wasn't the full decommissioning that the agreement had seemed to promise, but it was still major progress.
Trimble didn't declare himself strongly in favor of re-entering government at first. He hoped to squeeze concessions from Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson on two emotive issues he knew the "no" forces in his party could use to swing votes. One is Mandelson's plan to change the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to signal that Catholics should no longer fear it as a kind of Protestant occupying force. Many unionists consider that a hideous libel of officers who gave their lives fighting I.R.A. terror. UUP members also resented the refusal of the two ministers belonging to the I.R.A.'s political arm Sinn Fein to fly the British flag over their government buildings during the 72 days the provincial government had operated. It took a few days before Mandelson came up with awkward compromises on these neuralgic points: the R.U.C. name is to be retained somewhere in the "title deed" of the new force but not in daily use; and he gets to decide what flags will fly later if the parties can't agree themselves. Meanwhile, anti-agreement delegates started a furious campaign that put Trimble on the ropes.
The reserved former law professor who has a Nobel Peace Prize in his office and an Irish war club behind his desk came back swinging. He zoomed around the province all last week, holding meetings with UUP members until he grew hoarse. He argued there was no choice but to put Sinn Fein to the test: "As far as democratic politics are concerned, it is patently clear that Sinn Fein are not yet housetrained," he said, but "you don't train them other than through the democratic process."
Trimble hammered together a peculiar coalition that included not only the heads of the major Protestant churches but also the notorious Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, who once led a loyalist death squad that murdered dozens of Catholics. "We can't afford to turn back," said Adair. "There's been so much hate and bitterness in the past 30 years I don't think people on both sides can stomach any more ... I just hope people understand there is a bigger picture." A poll published in the Belfast Telegraph showed that 72% of rank-and-file Ulster Unionists backed Trimble in re-entering government.
But the close vote shows the erosion of optimism in his party caused by the I.R.A.'s failure to decommission. "This is a good result for the "no" camp," said William Thompson, an anti-agreement M.P. "This is only one battle in a long struggle for the soul of this party." Now Trimble must show that a working government can deliver the kind of normal life for Northern Ireland that alone will convince doubters on both sides of Ulster's conflict to keep taking risks for peace.
With reporting by Chris Thornton/Belfast