Trimble wins party backing for re-election as Northern Ireland leader

Saturday, October 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland gave its backing Saturday to David Trimble in his bid to retake his position atop a shaky coalition government.

But Trimble could still face a close vote when the territory's assembly meets next week to vote for his restatement as First Minister _ with hard-line members of his party suggesting they may not give him the crucial backing he needs.

Hard-liners in Trimble's Ulster Unionist party said they were unimpressed by recent Irish Republican Army moves on disarmament that Trimble has declared sufficient to bring him back into the fragile Catholic-Protestant administration.

``We are going into this hoping to be elected, expecting to be elected on unionist votes,'' Trimble said, referring to the wavering support among a handful of Unionist members.

``The stakes are high. The margin I dare say might be narrow but it's been narrow before,'' he said.

Trimble quit his post atop the joint Protestant-Catholic government in July, fed up with the IRA's refusal to fulfill past promises to put its weapons ``beyond use.''

As the government stumbled to the brink of collapse, the outlawed Catholic militant group announced Tuesday that it had destroyed an undisclosed stash of guns and explosives. An independent decommissioning body witnessed the event, calling it ``significant.''

Britain quickly reciprocated the move by tearing down military surveillance posts on the province's border with the Republic of Ireland, an area of heavy IRA support.

Trimble declared his satisfaction with the IRA move this week and announced plans to seek re-election.

The Ulster Unionists' ruling executive declared Saturday that all the party's 28 assembly members should support Trimble in a reinstatement vote expected next week.

But he needs a majority of the Protestants attending the session _ there are 58 total _ and a handful of Ulster Unionist legislators have fleeting support for Trimble, whom they accuse of being too soft on Catholic militants.

Trimble's greatest critic within the party, lawmaker Peter Weir, said he had yet to received enough reassurances on IRA disarmament to vote for his re-election.

``What is there at present would not be enough,'' Weir said. ``There needs to be clarity about what the IRA's intentions are and whether this was a one-off decommissioning gesture.''

Violence among Protestants and Catholics continued Saturday in a divided Belfast neighborhood after an 18-year-old British soldier was critically wounded the night before, a police spokesman said.

The unnamed solider was hurt as Protestant rioters threw gasoline bombs at a military checkpoint near a Catholic girls' primary school at the center of recent sectarian tensions. Explosives were later seized at a derelict house in the area.