New alliances cross religious divisions in Northern Ireland Assembly election favors 'politics of cooperation'

June 28, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- New alliances emerged yesterday in the aftermath of the Northern Ireland Assembly election, with the British province's largest Catholic and Protestant parties turning away from old divisions to unite in support of the fragile peace process.

The vote produced a clear endorsement of the new assembly, the centerpiece of the peace settlement reached April 10. But it also laid bare a strong challenge from within the Protestant movement to one of its key players, David Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionist Party and presumed leader of the new body. Many members of his party deserted him and voted for candidates opposed to sharing power with Catholics in the new legislature.

John Hume, leader of the moderate and predominantly Catholic group, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, rushed in to try to shore up support for Trimble.

"In this election," Hume said, "it is quite clear that David Trimble and his party have done very, very well indeed. And when you add up his votes and the SDLP vote and the votes of the parties that are in favor of the agreement, it's very strong and very clear and, therefore, the circumstances for working together now are certainly a lot better than they looked, given the noise of the 'no' campaign."

Alban Maginness, another Social Democratic and Labor Party winner and the first Catholic to be lord mayor of Belfast, appeared on a television panel with Trimble yesterday and said, "We want to see a new type of politics in Northern Ireland, the politics of cooperation, and I think the Ulster Unionists agree with that type of approach."

The totals were 28 seats for Trimble's party; 24 for Hume's; 20 for the anti-agreement Democratic Unionists of the Rev. Ian Paisley; 18 for Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army's political wing headed by Gerry Adams; six for the cross-community Alliance Party; five for the UK Unionists of Robert McCartney, a Paisley ally; and seven for smaller parties.

Eighty of the winners were supporters of the peace accord and 28 were opponents. That figure was two shy of the number Paisley and his followers needed to carry out their threat to block steps in the assembly called for in the peace accord, though it ensured what Trimble called "a bumpy ride."

The settlement, the product of 26 months of negotiations in Belfast, sets up a number of councils intended to balance opposing desires: the Catholics' wishes to form a closer association with the Republic of Ireland, and the Protestants' to remain part of Britain.

The anti-agreement campaign, led by Paisley and aided by dissidents within Trimble's party, made significant inroads into Trimble's support.

"The people of Northern Ireland have written the obituary notice of Trimbleism," Paisley exulted after the vote. "I believe it is the end of his leadership of anything in Northern Ireland."

Adams, whose party increased its vote total from past elections, said that he "appreciated David Trimble's difficulties" and that he thought the fracturing of the Unionist vote was "regrettable."

Asked about Trimble's longtime refusal to speak to him, Adams, who will become a minister in the Northern Ireland government, sounded conciliatory. Trimble, he said, "has a place on this island, and it should be an honorable place and an honored place, and he has to accept that I have to be treated on the basis of equality."

The first meeting of the assembly is to take place Wednesday in the same conference hall where peace negotiations were held. The principal order of business will be to select a first minister, vTC most likely Trimble, and his deputy, probably Hume.

After the meeting, the assembly will adjourn until the fall.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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