Trimble re-elected leader of Northern Ireland government, overcomes hard-line Protestants

Tuesday, November 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ David Trimble was re-elected Tuesday as leader of Northern Ireland's unity government _ a hard-fought victory over Protestant hard-liners that ended with lawmakers scuffling outside the legislature door.

Four days after the hard-liners threatened to bring down the power-sharing government by blocking Trimble's return to office, he won with the added support of three lawmakers from the neutral Alliance party, which represents both Catholics and Protestants.

The Alliance neutrals agreed to join the Protestant voting bloc in the Northern Ireland Assembly for Tuesday's vote.

That shift ensured Trimble's 31-29 victory among Protestant lawmakers, while he once again received unanimous support from the Catholic side of the house. To be elected ``first minister'' of the four-party power-sharing government required majority support from both blocs.

On Friday, the Protestant bloc had rejected Trimble, chief of the Protestant Ulster Unionist Party, by one vote.

Tuesday's vote also confirmed that Mark Durkan, a moderate Catholic, would serve in the No. 2 Cabinet post of ``deputy first minister.'' That post had been empty since Trimble resigned as first minister in July in protest at the Irish Republican Army's long-standing refusal to disarm.

The fury of Protestant hard-liners erupted into pushing and shoving at a joint news conference by Trimble and Durkan after the vote.

Lawmakers and supporters of the Rev. Ian Paisley's hard-line Democratic Unionist Party shouted at Trimble and pushed to get in front of the microphones. Catholic politicians pushed back the Paisleyites, who yelled, ``You're a cheater!'' and other accusations.

``May I also particularly say to the people of Northern Ireland that we look forward to delivering to you the quality of administration which you have every right to expect,'' Trimble said, shouting to be heard over the melee.

``We will carry through the work and we will not allow ourselves to be distracted by the sort of mob violence that some parties descend to,'' said Trimble, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in steering Protestants toward compromise.

Two weeks ago, Trimble accepted the IRA's breakthrough decision to begin getting rid of weapons in cooperation with disarmament officials. His return to office means that the administration _ formed in December 1999 but forced to shut down three times by crises _ now has its best hope of surviving.

The victory, however, won't end the political troubles for Trimble, a Protestant. His Ulster Unionist Party remains chronically split between opponents and supporters of the province's 1998 peace accord. Many reject Trimble's willingness to keep operating a 12-member Cabinet that includes two figures from Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party.

Whether Trimble can keep his many Protestant critics at bay may now depend on whether the outlawed IRA continues to scrap weapons. Some members of his party are determined to force Trimble to declare a resignation date if the IRA doesn't confirm it intends to disarm fully.

After Trimble lost the initial leadership ballot Friday, Paisley supporters appealed to Belfast High Court to prevent the second vote from taking place. Though they managed to delay the vote Monday, the court allowed it to be held.

The major goal of those opposing Trimble was to force Britain to dissolve the entire 108-seat legislature and call an early Northern Ireland-wide election.

With Protestant sentiment apparently hardening against working with Sinn Fein, Paisley's Democratic Unionists believe they would trounce Trimble's Ulster Unionists and become the largest party _ making Paisley the candidate to be the next ``first minister.''

``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 at his own press conference in the grand central lobby of Stormont Parliamentary Building.

Barring further crises, the term of the current legislature will run until June 2003.

Sinn Fein, the smaller of two Catholic-supported parties in the coalition, also has high ambitions of overtaking the Catholic moderates of Durkan's party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party. Sinn Fein had initially urged Britain to call new legislative elections when Trimble lost Friday.

Unless Trimble and Durkan can mobilize more public support behind their moderate, center-ground leaderships, analysts say the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein could triumph at the polls in 2003.

``You'd have this marriage made in hell between Paisley and Sinn Fein, which would never produce a first and deputy first minister. The whole system would implode,'' said Eamon Phoenix, a political analyst and historian.