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Moderate Reelected as Leader in Belfast

November 07, 2001|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Moderate Protestant leader David Trimble won reelection as first minister of Northern Ireland on Tuesday, overcoming a bid by hard-line unionists to topple the province's power-sharing government.

But Trimble's victory speech was interrupted by scuffles between lawmakers in the Stormont assembly building in the provincial capital, Belfast, as furious supporters of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party tried to drown out Trimble's remarks with taunts of "cheat."

After failing to win reelection last week, Trimble triumphed in Tuesday's vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly with the help of three members of the neutral Alliance Party who branded themselves unionists to give him the majority he needed.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, all major decisions in the British province must be backed by majorities in both the Protestant unionist and Roman Catholic nationalist communities.

Trimble and his Roman Catholic deputy, Mark Durkan of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, pledged to work on behalf of all citizens of the bitterly divided province.

"We will do our best to give to all the people of Northern Ireland the quality of administration they deserve," Trimble said. "We will not allow ourselves to be distracted by the sort of mob violence that some parties descended to."

The Ulster Unionist Party chief, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize, quit the top post in July, saying he would no longer share power with the Irish Republican Army's political allies, Sinn Fein, while the armed group held on to its weapons.

The IRA gave up some of its guns, ammunition and explosives last month after more than 30 years of armed conflict, and Trimble agreed to return to the government. But then two members of his own party voted with Paisley's bloc last week to deny Trimble a majority in the Protestant camp.

With the Alliance Party shift, Trimble managed a 31-29 victory among Protestants. He received unanimous support from Catholic lawmakers, who support the peace agreement but want to see Northern Ireland ultimately join the Irish Republic.

Unionists, most of whom are Protestant, want Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair applauded Trimble's return to office, saying the people of Northern Ireland are "setting an example that the rest of the world admires." Bertie Ahern, Blair's Irish counterpart and co-sponsor of the peace process, said, "Those who are determined to pursue the failed politics of the past will not succeed."

But the anti-agreement bloc succeeded in disrupting the day with what locals quickly dubbed "the brawl in the hall." Paisley's party and Sinn Fein each blamed the other for the fracas after the vote. Members of both parties had to be restrained.

Angry Paisley supporters lashed out at Trimble and Durkan, yelling: "Here comes the first cheat! Here comes the second cheat!"

Paisley said the government and pro-agreement parties had "rigged" the vote.

"When judgment day comes at the ballot box, the cheaters and twisters who came to David Trimble's rescue today will not be able to save him," Paisley said.

Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, said he saw no reason to hold early elections before the scheduled date of May 1, 2003.

The hope among local lawmakers and British and Irish officials is that Northern Ireland's 12-member executive and 108-member assembly can now get on with the business of governing. Most people in Northern Ireland say they prefer local government to direct rule by British officials in London.

But Trimble's party remains divided over the peace process, which many Protestants feel is producing more benefits for Catholics than for Protestants. Many opposed the renaming of the police force this week from the Royal Ulster Constabulary--a British name--to the neutral Northern Ireland Police Service.

Anti-agreement unionists would like to see the government collapse and to force new elections, which they believe they would win. Sinn Fein also believes that it could top the more centrist Social Democratic and Labor Party in a new vote.

*

Special correspondent William Graham in Belfast contributed to this report.

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