Trimble defies poor poll result

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The Independent Online
THE new Belfast assembly will meet for the first time on Wednesday with a strong nationalist contingent and a relieved David Trimble likely to be its leader, after his Ulster Unionist party narrowly avoided disaster in the election.

The result of the ballot revealed Unionist members split over the Good Friday agreement's blueprint for a reformed Northern Ireland. Three-quarters of voters supported candidates in favour of the accord but the assembly election was a poor result for the Ulster Unionists who, through the fragmentation of the unionist vote, lost their traditional place as the largest party in terms of votes cast.

Although the Rev Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionists did not do well enough to sabotage the assembly, his forces will be strong enough to mount trenchant opposition.

The general opinion is that the new institution should be workable but will face many difficulties in the face of a determined Paisleyite rearguard action. The differences within Unionism mean many problems and convulsions lie ahead for it.

Mr Trimble said of Mr Paisley yesterday: "He is not going to get the numbers necessary to destroy the assembly. Of course there is going to be noise, of course there is going to be a fair amount of attempts at disruption. I knew it was going to be a bumpy journey. We've come over some bumps but we're still there, we're still on the road."

Mr Paisley retorted: "I would not like to be a party leader with the mess that his party is in. And when we go into the assembly he will be finding that many, many of his members will be voting and going the way that we are going."

The results show that Mr Paisley held his core vote while Mr Trimble's party sank to its lowest-ever level. For the first time in Northern Irish history a nationalist party, John Hume's SDLP, gained the most votes.

Sinn Fein recorded, at 17.6 per cent, its highest-ever vote. This is in line with the pattern of recent elections in which the nationalist share of the vote has steadily increased at the expense of unionism.

Wednesday's first sitting of the assembly may elect the new first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. The signs are that these are likely to be Mr Trimble and Mr Hume.

Unionist split, page 4; Leading article, Section 2, page 4