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Q&A: Lifeline for N.I. assembly

Trimble is expected to run again for re-election  

By CNN's Mark Davies and Dylan Reynolds

LONDON, England (CNN) -- A small, independent party has decided to back David Trimble's bid to win re-election as Northern Ireland's first minister.

The move staves off the potential collapse of the power-sharing arrangement set up under the Good Friday peace accord.

Q. What happens now?

A. On Monday, Trimble and incoming SDLP leader Mark Durkan will be nominated again in the assembly for the posts of first and deputy first ministers, and another vote is expected.

This follows a decision by the Alliance Party to redesignate some members as unionists for a short period of time.

However, anti-agreement Democratic Unionists say they may launch a legal challenge to the vote.

In depth: Northern Ireland's troubled peace process 

Q. Why did Trimble fail to win the election at his first attempt?

A. Under assembly rules, the joint candidates must secure a majority of nationalist members, and a majority of unionists.

Women's Coalition MLA Jane Morrice redesignated as a unionist to help them in the vote but the election was lost by 30 votes to 29 because two members of Mr Trimble's party -- Peter Weir and Pauline Armitage -- sided with the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists.

Weir and Armitage said they had doubts about the IRA move on decommissioning and the direction of the peace process.

They felt they needed to see more progress on decommissioning before they would support Trimble's view that the IRA had put some weapons beyond use.

Trimble said the pair had acted "dishonourably."

Q. Why did the Alliance Party agree to change affiliation?

A. Alliance leader David Ford, whose party refused to redesignate on Friday, said he agreed to change the affiliations of some members to "protect the integrity of the agreement."

However, in return for their co-operation, the party is calling for a review of the assembly's cross-community voting system which forces members to sign up under the labels of "unionist", "nationalist" or "other."

The party believes the system appears to place a value only on nationalist and unionist votes.

Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid said a review would be held under the terms of Good Friday Agreement to look at the need for adjustments to the electoral arrangements and the assembly's procedures.

The review would involve all parties in the assembly and the government and any changes will require cross-community support in the assembly, he said.

Q. Why is David Trimble seeking re-election as first minister of the assembly?

A. Earlier this year David Trimble quit as first minister of the assembly. He was frustrated at lack of progress in the decommissioning of weapons by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Three Ulster Unionist ministers also resigned over the issue.

The situation changed when the IRA made the historic step of decommissioning some of its weapons last month. Trimble said he was satisfied that arms had "been made permanently unusable and permanently unavailable."

Trimble then confirmed he would seek re-election as first minister of the assembly.

The move was a key breakthrough because the assembly had been suspended twice this year as the UK government tried desperately to get the peace process back on track.

Q. Who is voting?

A. The 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The largest unionist, Protestant parties, which support Northern Ireland remaining as part of the UK, are Trimble's own party, the Ulster Unionists, which has 28 seats, and the Democratic Unionists with 20 seats.

On the predominantly Catholic nationalist and republican side -- parties which want a united Ireland -- there is the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) with 24 seats and Sinn Fein with 18 seats.

Other parties are the United Unionist Party (3 seats), the Northern Ireland Unionist Party (3) the Progressive Unionist Party (2) and the UK Unionists (1). There is one Independent Unionist.

There are two non-sectarian groups, the Alliance Party (6 seats) and Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (2).

Most of the parties support the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 -- which set up the assembly -- but it is opposed by the Democratic Unionists and some of the smaller unionist groups.

They object to sharing power in the assembly with Sinn Fein because of its links to the IRA.


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