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Nimble Trimble Back In N. Ireland

Moderate Protestant leader David Trimble was voted back in as head of Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive on Tuesday, reversing a wounding defeat he suffered at the hands of hard-liners last Friday.

Trimble's election as First Minister, and that of Roman Catholic nationalist Mark Durkan as Deputy First Minister, marked full-scale resumption of power sharing and eases pressure on the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

According to the Assembly tally, 70 unionists and nationalists voted for Trimble and Durkan, 29 unionists voted against.

Hard-line Protestants had tried to delay the vote for a second successive day so as to undermine Trimble but Lord John Alderdice, speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, refused their demands.

The fury of the Protestant hard-liners erupted into pushing and shoving at a press conference jointly given 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 as he spoke. Catholic politicians pushed back the Paisleyites, who shouted, "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.

Trimble won after a tactical voting maneuver by the small centrist Alliance Party which came to his aid to ensure he got the level of support by pro-British unionists demanded by the Assembly's intricate voting rules.

Learn more about the history of Northern Ireland's troubles.

Trimble resigned as First Minister last July in protest against failure by the Irish Republican Army — the main pro-Catholic guerrilla force in Northern Ireland — to disarm. The impasse was resolved two weeks ago when the IRA began for the first time in its history to put weapons beyond use.

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 last July in protest at the Irish Republican Army's longstanding refusal to disarm.

Trimble's return to office means that the administration — formed in December 1999 but forced to shut down three times by crises — could enjoy months of overdue stability.

However, the victory won't end political troubles for Trimble. His Ulster Unionist Party remains chronicaly split between enthusiasts and skeptics of the 1998 pact. 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. A section of Ulster Unionist opinion is determined to force Trimble to declare a new resignation date if the IRA doesn't confirm it intends to disarm fully.

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, the Protestant die-hards of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party believe they would trounce Trimble's Ulster Unionists and become the largest party — making Paisley the candidate to be the next "first minister."

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 eventually triumph at the polls in 2003 — and bring the house crashing down for good.

"You could be in a position where the Democratic Unionists would be greatly reinforced, perhaps mopping up the smaller anti-agreement parties, and taking some Ulster Unionist seats," said Eamon Phoenix, a political analyst and historian. "The SDLP would become second fiddle to Sinn Fein. And 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."

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