Trimble wins re-election by N. Ireland Assembly

Ulster Unionist leader prevails despite efforts by Protestant hard-liners


LONDON - The moderate Protestant leader David Trimble overcame the blocking tactics of hard-line Protestant opponents yesterday and was re-elected first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The election in Belfast of Trimble and of a new deputy first minister - Mark Durkan of the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party - held out the promise of a sustained functioning life for the power-sharing government for the first time since it was created by the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

It has been shut down three times for extended periods because of a stalemate over the Irish Republican Army's refusal to begin disarming. Friday, after that issue was finally resolved, the government was brought to the brink of total collapse when in a first ballot, Trimble failed to regain the post he had resigned July 1 to protest the inaction of the IRA.

Two weeks ago, the IRA made the long-awaited announcement that it had dismantled some of its weaponry for the first time, removing what had been continuously cited as the chief obstacle to progress in putting the terms of the peace accord into effect.

In the voting Friday, Trimble had the support of 70 percent of the assembly members but lost when he failed by a single vote to get a majority of the Protestant unionist bloc that he needed under the legislature's power-balancing rules. Two dissidents in his Ulster Unionist party had sided with the rejectionist Democratic Unionists, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, to deny Trimble his expected victory.

Faced with an end to the power-sharing experiment, the pro-agreement parties prevailed upon the centrist Alliance Party to let three of its members join the unionist faction to put Trimble over the top in a new vote Monday. Paisley succeeded in winning a one-day delay in that vote but lost in his effort to block it through legal action when the High Court in Belfast threw out his appeal. Yesterday, he failed in a second effort to have the assembly disallow the Alliance action, and the vote went ahead.

In the terminology of Northern Ireland, unionists, most of whom are Protestants, want to preserve Belfast's ties to Britain while republicans, most of whom are Catholic, want the North to merge one day with Ireland.

The hard-line unionists say that Trimble has made too many concessions to the republicans. They also object to his sharing power with ministers from Sinn Fein, the political ally of the IRA, while that guerrilla force remains even partially armed.

While they were defeated yesterday, they made it boisterously apparent that they will continue to dog Trimble. As the names of Trimble and Durkan were read out in the chamber and the two men rose to shake hands, members of Paisley's party heckled them and chanted "cheaters."

Minutes later, the embittered hard-liners shoved their way into the Great Hall of the Stormont parliament buildings, jostled lawmakers from rival Catholic parties and tried to drown out a news conference Trimble was holding with shouts of "traitor" and "fixer."

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