Ulster results deal blow to Trimble

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THE PROSPECT of success for the entire Irish peace process has been endangered by a critical fall in support for David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party in the elections for the new assembly.

The results showed that Northern Ireland's political landscape was undergoing serious upheaval. With counting continuing last night, the Unionist party seemed on the point of losing its traditional position as the largest political grouping to John Hume's nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.

As Mr Trimble's vote dropped, support for the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists was on the rise - indicating that the new assembly will contain a strong body of Unionist critics of the new approach laid out in the Good Friday agreement.

This means that Mr Trimble, as the agreement's principal advocate within the assembly, will be dogged by Paisleyite criticisms and attempts to sabotage the agreement's provisions for establishing new north-south links.

Televised warfare broke out within the Unionist party yesterday, with the Trimble loyalist Ken Maginnis accusing his parliamentary colleague Jeffrey Donaldson of betraying the party through his lack of support for the agreement. Mr Donaldson responded that Mr Maginnis "should hang his head in shame" for his role in the party's poorest election showing in years.

Mr Paisley's successes were augmented in many constituencies by strong showings from anti-Trimble Unionists. The pattern seemed to confirm Mr Paisley's claims that recent weeks had seen a significant shift of Protestant voters who voted "yes" in last month's referendum into the anti-agreement camp.

The election confirmed that the pattern seen in recent years of fracturing within Unionism has continued and even worsened. This process, together with an apparently higher turnout on the nationalist side, has enabled the SDLP to challenge the Ulster Unionists' traditional supremacy.

The divisions within the UUP were on open display even before yesterday, thus probably alienating many of its traditional supporters. Mr Trimble said: "There are problems and clearly those problems have had an effect on this election, but I think we'll leave the post-mortems until everything is complete."

Mr Donaldson said of Mr Maginnis: "He has presided over one of the biggest electoral disasters for the Ulster Unionist Party in recent years. He should not be pointing the finger at anybody ...

"People deserted the Ulster Unionists in their droves and if you want to unite a party, you have got to give both sides of the argument their place. A majority of the party voted for the agreement, but time will prove them wrong."

Mr Maginnis retorted: "He gloated over the difficulties he and others like him created in the party and I am sad, rather than angry about what has happened."

In his North Antrim constituency, where he made a strong personal showing, Mr Paisley rejoiced: "People have awakened to see this is a pan-nationalist agreement that has to be brought to a standstill. It is what we intend to do to save the Union. The majority of Unionists who will be in the assembly are those who said `no'. We are not in the wrecking business. We are going to save the Union.

"Dublin is sick. Tony Blair is sick and the sickest man of all is David Trimble. He is sickened unto death because today the people of Northern Ireland wrote the obituary notice of Trimbleism. I believe it is the end of his leadership of anything in Northern Ireland."

Gerry Adams yesterday became one of the first members to be elected to the assembly. The Sinn Fein president topped the poll in West Belfast, and along with Joe Hendron (SDLP), and the DUP's Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry), became the first winners of the 108 seats.

Mr Adams said: "We went to the electorate having sought a mandate in the forum election to negotiate; we received that; we negotiated. We now have to implement that. People want to see me and others taking our place in the institutions.

I think the work in the days and weeks ahead is to put all of those structures - cross-border bodies, ministers, the executive - into place..."