Trimble out to crush dissenters

Click to follow
The Independent Online
POLITICIANS today enter their final week of campaigning for Thursday's vital elections to the new Belfast assembly - the centrepiece of Northern Ireland's new constitutional arrangements.

The assembly will need a strong majority in favour of the Good Friday agreement to fend off challenges from thestrong section of Unionism opposed to the accord.

The British and Irish governments, nationalists and republicans are all hoping that David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party scores a decisive victory over the Rev Ian Paisley and other Protestant dissenters.

The issue most debated within Unionism during a low-key campaign is whether Mr Trimble and Tony Blair can be trusted to deliver a new deal with real prospects for peace without endangering the union with Britain. Mr Paisley has been arguing trenchantly that neither the Ulster Unionist leader nor the Prime Minister can be trusted to deliver peace or to safeguard Unionism.

The 108 members of the new assembly will be elected byproportional representation, with six coming from each of Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster constituencies.

Each will initially be paid pounds 29,000, and office costs of pounds 15,000, but this will quickly rise as powers are devolved to the assembly. Its first meeting is expected in the week beginning 29 Jun.

Nationalist attention will focus on the performances of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Sinn Fein's vote has risen from an average of 11 per cent in the late 1980s to last year's Westminster total of 16.9 per cent, its best ever result. The rise has primarily been due to the party's success in wooing new voters and former non-voters. But it has also been due partly to a switch of some voters to Sinn Fein from the SDLP.

One theory is that the switch was partly due to SDLP supporters voting tactically to encourage the peace process. This election will show whether or not they will now revert to the SDLP.

Early assembly meetings may produce some political fireworks - they will bring Mr Paisley and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams into prolonged contact for the first time. Members will elect a first minister and deputy first minister. These are thought most likely to be Mr Trimble and either SDLP leader John Hume or his deputy, Seamus Mallon.

At a later stage, the assembly will select a shadow executive committee. Attention will centre on the question of Sinn Fein, which claims guaranteed inclusion under the terms of the Good Friday agreement - the party's leaders have taken to saying they are "ready for government".

But Mr Trimble and his allies will press hard for IRA arms decommissioning or other moves from republicans before allowing Sinn Fein on to the executive.