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Sunday, 4 November, 2001, 22:45 GMT
Reid dismisses NI legal threat
New elections for first minister will be held on Monday
Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid has defended his decision to stretch the deadline for the election of a first minister by the assembly.

The Democratic Unionist Party has said it may challenge Dr Reid's decision to delay calling an assembly election after the failure to re-elect a first and deputy first minister by the deadline of midnight on Saturday.

But Dr Reid said on Sunday that he was confident that the majority of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly were now prepared to work together to get the political process back on track.

The assembly is to meet on Monday for another attempt to elect ministers to the two top posts.

John Reid:
John Reid: "I am aware of my statutory obligations"
This has been made possible by the non-sectarian Alliance party's decision to lend some of its five votes to the unionist bloc vote.

On Sunday, the party's leader David Ford confirmed three Alliance MLAs were due to "redesignate" their votes for the leadership ballot.

He said: "Any move that we make will be temporary, technical and tactical."

Earlier, speaking on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme, Dr Reid said: "There is an opportunity now, but no-one should think this will be finished in a day or two days. It won't."

Reacting to the DUP threat he said: "The position we find ourselves is that I have the statutory obligation to propose an election date because there is no first or deputy first minister.

"I am mindful of my obligations but I also have to take into consideration what a reasonable man would do in the light of developments."

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble failed to be re-elected as Northern Ireland first minister, along with the nationalist SDLP's Mark Durkan as deputy first minister, after an assembly vote on Friday.

David Trimble
David Trimble could be re-elected first minister
Two dissident members of Mr Trimble's party voted with the anti-Agreement DUP, ensuring that he failed to achieve a majority within the unionist voting bloc.

He did gain a majority vote in the assembly overall. But no provision can be passed in the assembly unless it gains the support of a majority of both the unionist and nationalist blocs.

On Saturday night, the non-aligned party Alliance said it would redesignate some of its five members as unionists, so that when the election is held again on Monday, David Trimble should be able to achieve a unionist majority.

In return, Dr Reid has promised the Alliance Party and Women's Coalition, which has also designated, that a review of concerns over the "fairness and efficiency" of the current voting system will be carried out.

Tony Blair:
Tony Blair: "Alliance and Women's Coalition have taken brave decision"
On Sunday, Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the moves by both parties.

His spokesman said he "realised it was a difficult and brave decision" and recognised the "leadership that David Ford has shown".

He said the two parties had put "the interest of the people of Northern Ireland above party position".

Irish premier Bertie Ahern also said the Alliance move was "brave and helpful".

But he warned that even if Mr Trimble is re-elected as first minister he would be likely to face continuing difficulties from inside the Ulster Unionist Party.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said the vote on Monday represented "a chance for the pro-Agreement parties to cross the Rubicon together and leave the rejectionists behind".

Meanwhile, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson said his party was still deciding how to react.

Alliance Party's David Ford wants the voting rule changed
Alliance Party's David Ford has agreed to redesignate some members
He said: "At this stage we are locked in discussions with our legal advisers and will decide what course of action we will take."

Earlier, he said failure to elect a first and deputy first minister by midnight on Saturday meant Dr Reid was "required by law to call an election".

"Now how absurd can this whole process get?" he added.

Midnight on Saturday was the end of the breathing period created by Dr Reid when he suspended the assembly for six weeks because of disagreement between the parties, particularly over an absence of IRA disarmament.

Mr Trimble, who had pulled his party out of the executive to put pressure on republicans, decided to stand for re-election and go back into government with Sinn Fein after the IRA act of decommissioning two weeks ago.

Following the IRA move, the Ulster Unionists agreed to go back into government with Sinn Fein.

The BBC's Joe Paley in Belfast
"If things go to plan at Stormont, the British and Irish governments will be relieved new elections will not have to be held"
NI Secretary John Reid:
"I am mindful of my obligations, but I need to take account of what a reasonable man would do in the light of developments"

Assembly back

IRA arms breakthrough


Loyalist ceasefire





See also:

03 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
NI political crisis deadline looms
03 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Fall-out after hardliners flex their veto
03 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
Tactical bid to save NI devolution
04 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
New era as RUC changes name
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