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In N. Ireland Vote, Trimble Falls Short

Britain: Unionist leader fails to win support of majority of Protestants in Assembly. Outcome leaves local government at a stalemate.


LONDON — A week after the Irish Republican Army's groundbreaking move to give up guns, Northern Ireland's peace process was under threat again Friday when moderate unionist David Trimble failed to win reelection as leader of the British province's power-sharing government.

Although 70% of Northern Ireland Assembly members backed Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party chief didn't secure a majority of the votes cast by his fellow Protestants. Under the rules established by the 1998 Good Friday agreement, the first minister and deputy first minister must be elected by majorities in both the Protestant and Roman Catholic camps.

Two members of Trimble's own party opposed him, saying that the IRA's first moves to disarm were "wholly unsatisfactory" and that there were no guarantees that more guns would be renounced.

That view is shared by a majority of Protestants, according to a poll published in the Belfast Telegraph on Friday. More than half of the Protestants interviewed said they don't believe an international disarmament commission's report that the IRA had eliminated a "significant" part of its arsenal.

Only 29% said they believe the report, compared to 71% of Catholics who said they have confidence in the determination by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain.

But Catholics also appear to be losing faith in the roller-coaster peace process. The poll indicated for the first time that a majority of Catholics aren't confident about achieving an end to the 30-year sectarian conflict.

Trimble resigned as first minister in July over the IRA's refusal to disarm under the Good Friday accord. When it became clear that the power-sharing government was on the verge of collapse last week, the IRA agreed to begin putting weapons "beyond use," and De Chastelain confirmed that the group had gotten rid of guns, ammunition and explosives.

Trimble accused Peter Weir and Pauline Armitage, the two members of his party who voted against him, of behaving "dishonorably" and said they belong to "a small, unrepresentative clique" trying to frustrate the wishes of the community at large.

"Last week, we were on a remarkable high with the beginning to [IRA weapons] decommissioning," Trimble said. "But over the years we have had our ups and downs, and one should not regard today's decision as being in any way final. It is not."

After the failed vote, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, met with the political parties that support the Good Friday agreement and said he will decide today what to do. His options include suspending the power-sharing government to buy more time, or calling new Northern Ireland elections.

"We all need to do whatever is necessary because people are fed up with delay, fed up with lurching from crisis to crisis," Reid said. "The aim is to get to the point where we can have a successful election of a first minister and deputy first minister."

The Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the peace agreement, favors new Northern Ireland elections because he believes that his hard-line party could overtake Trimble's as the largest Protestant bloc. He cheered Trimble's setback.

"At long last, we have given them the bloody nose they deserve for those who took part in that charade of decommissioning," Paisley said.

Many Protestants appear to feel that Catholics are winning political and economic power under the accord and, therefore, that Protestants are losing. Many also fear that Catholic nationalists eventually will win the battle to unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. Unionists want the province to remain a part of Britain.

While supportive of the peace process, the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, also wants new provincial elections so that it may take on more moderate Catholic nationalists in the Social Democratic and Labor Party.

The Protestant-Catholic alliance for change remains "rock solid," said Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness, who serves as education minister in the local government.

"If we keep our nerve . . . if we stay together, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the forces for change . . . can overcome all of those who would wish to drag us to bad old days," he said.

Reid said he believes the pro-agreement parties will find a solution to the stalemate. One possibility is to push the independent Alliance party to redesignate its five Assembly members as unionists, thereby giving Trimble more votes on his side of the legislative chamber.

But undoubtedly, that would draw charges from opponents of the peace process that the British government is undermining the democratic system in Northern Ireland.


Special correspondent William Graham in Belfast contributed to this report.

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