Trimble eclipsed by voters eager for change

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THE ELECTION has produced a result which will be regarded by many as unwelcome and dangerous, threatening difficult battles ahead in an assembly supposed to help create a new Northern Ireland.

The relative strengths of the parties and the two communities have again been altered in a way which will do little to clear up political uncertainties. Rather, this result will accentuate the fact that those communities are deeply divided not only politically but psychologically as well. Nationalists look decisive, confident, eager for change and reform; Unionists look divided, fearful and unsure.

Three of the political big four can justifiably claim to have done very well: John Hume, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams all have cause for satisfaction. The big losers are David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, a fact which will be received with dismay not just within the party but by all who want the new assembly to work.

Behind the Good Friday agreement lay the assumption that the party would be the cornerstone of the assembly. With the exception of European contests the party has come first in every election in Northern Ireland's history. In signing up to the agreement, David Trimble was promising to take office in a new executive centred on his party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

The question of Sinn Fein's involvement in the executive remains unresolved and a matter of heated debate, but Mr Trimble was to be the undisputed first minister, with John Hume or Seamus Mallon his deputy. He was to deliver a clear majority over those Unionists, led by Ian Paisley, who would try to block movement in the assembly.

The likelihood is that this will still be the pattern, since proportional representation transfers may well mean that Mr Trimble's party will win a higher proportion of seats than votes. But even so, the indignity of trailing behind the SDLP is going to deliver a huge jolt not just to his party but to the Unionist community as a whole.

The big political question is whether Mr Trimble will press on with the idea of a Unionist-SDLP coalition; and, if he does, whether he will contemplate serving alongside Sinn Fein in the face of such strong opposition from his own community.

It is already clear that he has not managed to persuade a majority within Unionism of the desirability of making a radical new start in Northern Ireland. The impression left by the early election returns is that some of those Protestants who voted Yes in last month's referendum have lost their nerve and scuttled back to the old tribal certainties.

Across the divide, meanwhile, nationalist voters pulled off the trick of increasing the vote of both the SDLP and Sinn Fein. This may be due to demographic changes, as increasing numbers of Catholic teenagers come on to the electoral register, or it may result from a particularly high nationalist turnout.

But even as nationalists celebrate the performances of their parties, they will be well aware that creating a workable assembly is dependent on David Trimble. They, and the governments, will be watching anxiously to see whether he keeps his composure or loses his nerve.