Trimble in new election attempt tomorrow

 

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mr David Trimble and incoming nationalist SDLP leader Mr Mark Durkan could be elected First and Deputy First Ministers tomorrow despite failing to secure enough unionist support in the Assembly on Friday.

The lifeline for the North’s political institutions came last night from members of the cross-community Alliance party who agreed to change their designation to unionist to save the Assembly.

After a day of protracted telephone and face to face negotiations at Stormont and Hillsborough Castle, Alliance leader Mr David Ford said his party was re-designating, not for the sake of any individual, but to "save the Good Friday Agreement".

Mr Ford would not confirm how many of his Assembly team would re-designate but insisted Alliance was still a cross community party.

In return the British government and pro-Agreement parties have consented to a review of the voting procedures in the Assembly where MLAs are branded unionist, nationalist or other.

The Alliance believes the system unfairly discriminates against non-aligned parties.

Alliance was praised by Northern Ireland Secretary Dr John Reid who confirmed he would not be suspending the institutions or calling fresh elections.

"It is a brave decision by the Alliance Party which they have taken in the interests of a much wider process and they deserve the recognition of all of us for this," he said.

"I shall keep that under close review in the light of these developments. For the moment I am sure that the right course is to enable the Assembly to proceed with its business on Monday," he said.

"I am sure that I don't need to urge all members of the Assembly to recognise the burden of responsibility which now rests with them. The future of the process now lies in their hands."

Alliance's move also meant Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid was able to avoid either suspending the political institutions or calling fresh Assembly elections if the Executive could not fill its top two posts.

The move was condemned by anti-Agreement unionists who were also expected to take legal action over Dr Reid's failure to call fresh elections or suspend the Assembly and executive by midnight last night.

The deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Mr Peter Robinson, said: "At this stage we are locked in discussions with our legal advisers and will decide what course of action we will take. All will become clear within the next 24 hours."

Rebel UUP MLA Ms Pauline Armitage said that the Alliance Party's move to re-designate some of its five MLAs was "either bold or stupid".

Speaking on BBC Radio Five Live this morning she defended her decision to vote against Mr Trimble and argued for a complete review of the peace agreement: "The Northern Ireland Peace Process is nothing short of a farce," she said.

"I don't want concessions. I want my rights as a British citizen. Had I voted for Mr Trimble was that going to make it better?

"Mr Trimble should ask John Reid to suspend the assembly for six weeks and during those six weeks there should be a complete review of the agreement. I want an agreement that reflects the spirit of both communities."

Ms Armitage said: "I am not aligning myself with any other political party. If I'm expelled from the Ulster Unionist Party I will never join another party." PA