BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In 1996, the year after he became leader of the Ulster Unionists, a defiant David Trimble stood before the party faithful and said: "Compromise between nationalism and unionism is not possible. And even if it were, it is not desirable."
Last week, a decidedly different David Trimble acknowledged that the nationalists' goal of unifying the two Irelands is legitimate if sought through peaceful means, and he spoke in conciliatory language unprecedented for a unionist leader.
"We now have a chance to create a genuine partnership between unionists and nationalists in a novel form of government," he said. "It offers us the opportunity to put past failures behind us."
Today, Trimble, an enigmatic law professor, aficionado of opera and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, will put his position, and the Northern Ireland peace process, on the line.
He has asked his 860-member party council to back a compromise aimed at breaking the impasse that has stalled implementing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for more than a year. Trimble wants his party to drop its demand that the Irish Republican Army begin disarming before unionists form a power-sharing government with members of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political allies.
"If we say no, there will be no decommissioning [of weapons] and no Stormont government," he warned in a statement yesterday. "All the gains we have secured for unionism in the agreement will be lost, and the pain we endured will have been for nothing."
If the council does not decisively back him -- most observers say he needs a least 60 percent of the vote -- Trimble will be finished as the Unionists' leader.
And the Good Friday Agreement, which was supposed to transform the debate over Northern Ireland's status from a violent conflict to a strictly political one, will be all but dead, too.
The good will and momentum generated by the conciliatory statements last week by Trimble, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and the IRA will have been wasted. If that happens, many here fear that history will repeat itself, as it has so often in Ireland, with violence filling the political vacuum.
Trimble has told his closest advisers that unionist intransigence will be singled out for blame if the political paralysis continues and the paramilitary cease-fires that have been the bedrock of the peace process collapse.
His reasoning highlights the cold pragmatism that has replaced the heated obstinacy that once defined him.
If Trimble prevails, and a power-sharing government is formed next week, he and his party will receive much of the credit, and all the pressure will shift to the republican movement. Sinn Fein last week said it believes that disarming the paramilitaries is essential to the peace process, and the IRA has promised to appoint a representative to discuss disarming after the power-sharing government is formed.
The British and Irish governments, not to mention the White House, which remains a key player in the process, will expect the IRA to keep its end of the bargain.
But Trimble's party is badly divided. It must decide whether Trimble is a visionary leader who can safeguard Northern Ireland's union with Britain, or a deluded appeaser who is compromising the principles of democracy and pushing Northern Ireland down a slippery slope to merger with the Irish Republic.
Jeffrey Donaldson, one of Trimble's rivals for leadership, thinks Trimble is the latter. He says Trimble has shifted so many times that the party's word means nothing, that the proud Protestant tradition of saying what you mean and meaning what you say has been trivialized. He believes the party will reject Trimble's compromise.
"I believe people will want to stand behind the word they gave to the people of Northern Ireland in successive manifestoes," he said.
Trimble's career as Ulster Unionist leader has been marked by a willingness to abandon positions once considered non-negotiable. While his predecessors shunned Dublin, he went there after his election as party leader to dispel claims that unionists were bigots.
He initially said he would not talk to Sinn Fein. But eventually he did, meeting and talking at length with Adams.
"Trimble got a chance to size up the republicans, to judge their commitment to democracy," said George J. Mitchell, the former U.S. senator who mediated the Good Friday agreement.
As the talks wound up, Mitchell said Adams told him, "David Trimble is our best bet, and we're his."
While he remains prickly, Trimble has made gestures that no previous unionist leader would. Last year, after an IRA splinter group exploded a bomb that killed 29 people in Omagh, the worst atrocity of the Troubles, Trimble crossed the border into the Irish Republic to attend the funerals of three boys from Donegal killed in the blast. When the priest welcomed Trimble from the altar, the Catholic congregation burst into applause.
David Ervine, a leader of the Progressive Unionists, the political wing of a loyalist paramilitary group, said that Trimble has matured personally and politically, and that it bodes well for the people he represents.
"David Trimble is showing real leadership," he said. "He is not just mouthing words that condemn another generation to conflict. He is providing an alternative to conflict."
Today's party vote is by no means a sure thing. Seven of his party's 10 members of the British Parliament are opposed to the compromise, and to the Good Friday agreement in principle.
But Trimble is a shrewd judge of the party faithful. Eighteen months ago, he correctly calculated that the grass roots were more willing to compromise than the party's elected officials, getting 72 percent of the council to back the Good Friday Agreement.