Trimble prepares for return to power after deal

The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, seems assured of re-election as Northern Ireland's First Minister today after the decision taken over the weekend by a small moderate party to come to his aid.

The centre-ground Alliance party agreed on Saturday night to redesignate two of its five Belfast Assembly members as Unionists to make up the shortfall in Mr Trimble's support in the Assembly.

Last week he failed by just 0.8 per cent to gain the requisite majority Unionist support in the Assembly to secure his re-election to the post from which he resigned in July to put pressure on the IRA to decommission its weapons.

A second vote is to be taken today after a weekend of intensive meetings which resulted in the Alliance party agreeing to the tactical move of temporarily transferring two of its members into the Unionist camp.

In return, a review of the Assembly's voting mechanisms is to be held, with the Alliance seeking to increase its influence in the chamber.

The party has complained that the system marginalises and sidelines middle-of-the-road elements such as itself.

The Prime Minister Tony Blair commended the Alliance move yesterday as a difficult and brave decision which had put the interests of the people before party positions.

Barring any last-minute surprises, Mr Trimble seems about to reverse last week's result and to be reinstalled at the head of the devolved administration in Belfast.

His election would remove any necessity for the British Government either to call fresh elections in Northern Ireland or suspend the Assembly.

The widespread hope is that Mr Trimble's return to office will bring about a more settled period for the administration. This was voiced yesterday by the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, who said: "There is less mayhem in the streets and there is more economic activity. What we badly need is a prolonged run of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the executive working in the form of a government."

However the strength of Unionist opposition to the peace process, as seen in last week's vote, is a sign of the deep divisions within Unionism. Mr Trimble's opponents are vowing to continue to harry and harass him in office.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, recognised this when he said: "There is an opportunity now, but no one should think this will be finished in a day or two days. It won't."

The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists provided speedy confirmation of this yesterday by threatening legal action against Mr Reid.

It had been thought that he was legally obliged to call elections or to suspend the Assembly if no First Minister was in place by the weekend, but he did neither.

Yesterday Mr Reid seemed confident that his action would not be overturned by a legal challenge.

Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, said last week's Assembly vote was in reality not about IRA decommissioning but about rejecting the peace process. He said those Unionists who opposed Mr Trimble had in effect "voted not to have a Catholic about the place".

* The name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary was formally changed at the weekend to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The first recruits to the new body are due to start their training today.

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