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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 11:42 GMT
Q&A: Trimble elected
q and a
BBC News Online answers key questions about the re-election of a First Minister for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Why has Northern Ireland again been in crisis?

Last Friday David Trimble failed to be re-elected as First Minister of Northern Ireland when two members of the Ulster Unionists refused to support their leader returning to power-sharing government.

Assembly members have now finally elected Mr Trimble to that post and the nationalist SDLP's Mark Durkan to the post of Deputy First Minister. This means that after four months of deadlock the Northern Ireland Executive, a fundamental part of the peace process, can return to business.

What created this crisis?

David Trimble resigned in July as part of a plan to pressure republicans over IRA decommissioning. When the IRA announced a start to that process in October, he announced he would return to government with Sinn Fein.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has very complicated voting arrangements designed to ensure that no decision can be taken without the agreement of at least half of the unionist and the nationalist representatives acting together - the power-sharing deal at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.

On Friday Mr Trimble won the support of 70% of assembly members but just less than a majority of the unionist members, meaning the vote failed on cross-community grounds. The two members of his own party who voted against him did so because they don't want to see a return to power-sharing without more IRA decommissioning.

What was the impact of this result?

This blow to the peace process left Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid with what appeared to be a limited and difficult choice between calling an election to the assembly or suspending it for a review.

However, instead of choosing either of these options, he and the pro-agreement parties came up with a technical change in the rules that would allow Mr Trimble a second chance at election by creating more members of the unionist bloc.

The Democratic Unionists said that the move was illegal and wanted it ruled so by the courts. The High Court rejected that challenge by the DUP.

So what did this technical change do?

The deal struck on Saturday saw three members of the non-sectarian Alliance Party "redesignate" themselves "unionists" for the purposes of the vote and therefore secure Mr Trimble's re-election. The three members are party leader David Ford, Eileen Bell and Sean Neeson.

The Alliance Party has five members - but because they are not aligned to either the unionist or the nationalist blocs their votes don't count on knife-edge decisions which require the support of both communities.

The government has agreed to an Alliance Party request for a review of the current voting arrangements .

What exactly did the DUP say was wrong with representatives changing their positions?

In theory there is nothing as the non-aligned Women's Coalition redesignated one of its members as a unionist on Friday to help Mr Trimble. But the DUP said that there was a legal question mark over the timing of the moves.

Reid's defence
The High Court in Belfast dismissed the DUP's legal challenge on the following grounds:
  • John Reid's decision was 'reasonable' because parties agreed before midnight deadline
  • Dr Reid had accepted that legislation obliged him to provide election date
  • But court agreed that he has "latitude" as to when he actually calls an election

  • Under the terms of the legislation, a first minister and deputy first minister should have been in place by midnight on Saturday to prevent either a suspension or elections.

    The DUP said that Dr Reid conveniently ignored the legal deadline for political purposes so that today's vote could be held.

    However in the High Court Mr Justice Kerr accepted the Secretary of State's argument that while Dr Reid had an obligation to set a date for an election, he also had a degree of latitude as to when he would make that announcement.

    The Northern Ireland Office says that it is not surprised that it defeated the challenge. It says that Dr Reid's decision was also legal because the deal with the Alliance Party had been struck before the midnight deadline and that the earliest possible time for a vote would be Monday morning.

    What about the other parties?

    With the exception of the DUP and a number of other anti-agreement unionsts, all members of the Northern Ireland Assembly wanted to see a first minister in place and the Good Friday Agreement upheld and working.

    They stress that this has been less about David Trimble the politician and more about making sure that the political package works - a package backed by a majority of people at referendum votes north and south of the Irish border.

    Nationalist parties regard the tactics of the DUP and the anti-agreement Ulster Unionists as alternating between deliberate moves to wreck the Agreement and attempts to delay the implementation of the political deal.

    The pro-agreement parties also say that the DUP is seeking to have it both ways. While it has tried to prevent the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive, it has retained the right to have ministers, though they insist they will not attend its meetings.

    Why won't the Northern Ireland Secretary call an election?

    The government has been trying to avoid elections all year. The General Election result showed a polarising of opinion within Northern Ireland, away from the centre ground and towards more entrenched positions.

    The fear was that should the UUP lose out to the DUP, agreement would have become impossible.

    Assembly back

    IRA arms breakthrough


    Loyalist ceasefire





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