BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Under British pressure, a handful of neutral politicians agreed Saturday to join the Protestant voting bloc in Northern Ireland's legislature, a bid to overpower hard-line lawmakers and save the province's unity government.
The reluctant decision by the Alliance party, which represents both moderate Roman Catholics and Protestants, freed the way for a second legislative vote Monday--three days after Protestant extremists defeated David Trimble's reelection as government leader.
Catholics backed Trimble in the first vote Friday, but a narrow majority of his fellow Protestants voted against him. They don't want the coalition to include the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein party.
The longtime absence of a "first minister" has pushed the power-sharing government, the hardest-won achievement of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, to the brink.
The deadline to fill Trimble's pivotal post--or suffer the collapse or suspension of the joint Catholic-Protestant legislature--was Saturday.
Britain, in negotiations all day Saturday, proved unwilling to let a minority of lawmakers wreck the Catholic-Protestant administration. It considers the nearly 2-year-old coalition to be Northern Ireland's best hope of forging peace after three decades of bloodshed.
Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, praised what he called the "brave decision" by Alliance, a party too small to merit posts in the four-party administration.
Reid said the 108-member Assembly would reconvene Monday to reelect Trimble leader "and to give stability to the institutions."
The Alliance move would tilt the balance of power back in favor of Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who leads the biggest Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists. Barring further rebellion within his own party ranks, he would return to power and the four-party coalition would survive after several months of instability.