London (CNSNews.com) - Just when it seemed the Northern Ireland peace process could not weather another crisis, a new and potentially catastrophic one has emerged -- a surprise challenge against the leader of the main Protestant party in the province, Ulster Unionist Party head David Trimble.
Attempts by the United States, Britain and Ireland to salvage the suspended peace process could come to nothing if Trimble fails to fend off the challenge - or win convincingly - at a meeting Saturday of the party's 860-member council.
Trimble faces a showdown with a UUP lawmaker critical of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, and who has accused him of making too many concessions to Roman Catholic republicans.
The Rev. Martin Smyth, the party's whip in Britain's parliament and a Presbyterian minister, has won the support of party members disgruntled with Trimble's handling of the process.
The critics are particularly angry about Trimble's comments made in Washington on St. Patrick's Day, which they regard as a policy reversal. Trimble said he would be prepared to re-enter a power-sharing government with the republican Sinn Fein before its military allies gave up their weapons, provided guarantees were given.
The fledgling Protestant-Catholic provincial coalition was suspended by the British government last month to forestall Trimble's threat to resign as First Minister of the body.
The Sinn Fein-allied Irish Republican Army reacted by pulling out of negotiations with an international disarmament commission, throwing the process into further disarray.
Trimble, UUP leader since 1995, expressed confidence Friday that he would win. He told a press conference that once Saturday's vote was over, he hoped his opponents would accept the council's democratic decision.
"Over the course of the last two years the opponents of the agreement have run through the full gamut of what they can do to oppose the agreement, culminating in this challenge. Now let it end with this challenge."
But Smyth, a lawmaker for South Belfast, may not be easily written off. He was won the backing of at least three of the party's national legislators, is believed to have the support of the youth wing, and can probably count on the votes of the 100-plus council members from the Orange Order, a traditional loyalist organization which Smyth headed for 26 years.
The challenger said that, should he win, he would promote a form of devolution in Northern Ireland that was free from "every pressure" brought to bear by paramilitary groups.
Many Protestants feel that, although the IRA and other mainstream military bodies are honoring a ceasefire, their failure to surrender weapons remains a constant threat hanging of the power-sharing process.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has thrown his weight behind Trimble, as has UUP executive committee chairman, Lord Rogan, and the party's deputy leader John Taylor, despite the latter himself having voiced misgivings about the Good Friday agreement because of the IRA's refusal to disarm.
The pro-unionist Belfast Telegraph said in an editorial Friday the leadership challenge was a "defining moment for unionism."
The paper predicted victory for Trimble, whom it said had won "admirers around the world, as someone prepared to make sacrifices for peace.
"Are his challengers prepared to abandon all this goodwill, with its promise of stability and prosperity, in favor of turning back the clock, with no acceptable alternative?"
Smyth has been defeated by Trimble before, when both stood for leadership of the party in 1995.