Politics: Trimble set to be First Minister

The new assembly
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The Independent Online
THE NEW political shape of Ulster has finally emerged, with former enemies set to share seats in the province's new government.

The assembly will elect the cabinet, and David Trimble, of the Ulster Unionist Party, which emerged with the largest number of seats, 28, is expected to become First Minister. The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party came second with 24 seats, and its leader John Hume is in line to become Deputy First Minister. Sinn Fein picked up 18 seats, and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness may also be elected to the cabinet. But whether they will be allowed to take up their seats until the IRA starts decommissioning its weapons is still to be decided.

The elections for the 108-seat assembly took place under the single transferable vote system of proportional representation.Under this, Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies elected six members each, listing the candidates in order of preference. Each candidate who obtained 14.3 per cent of the vote in the first count was elected. The surplus votes then trickled down to the second preferences. After this, the candidates with least support were eliminated and their votes redistributed until the quota of six was filled.

Although the SDLP received 177,000 first-preference votes to make it the biggest single party in the province, it was a temporary ascendancy, and when the electoral process ended it was the UUP which held the highest number of seats.

The cabinet is expected to consist of around a dozen ministers. Apart from Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness, it could include Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan of the SDLP; John Taylor and Reg Empey of the UUP, and John Allardice of the Alliance party. As part of their package, ministers will receive chauffeured cars and salaries of around pounds 46,000. Some will receive police protection. Assembly members, unless they are drawing salaries as MEPs or MPs will get pounds 29,000 a year with pounds 15,000 expenses. Sinn Fein will pool its members' salaries, to be shared out according to individual needs.

Opposition to the terms of the Good Friday agreement will come from the 20 members of the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, from Bob McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party, which won five seats, and three other members opposed to the agreement. With a total of 28, they are two short of the figure of 30 needed to block Mr Trimble's election as First Minister.

Mr Trimble, does however, face a powerful challenge from outside the assembly. Jeffrey Donaldson, the anti-agreement UUP MP, who was not given party permission to run for the assembly, has said he will lead a breakaway if Mr Trimble enters government with Sinn Fein before IRA decommissioning takes place.