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Northern Ireland Assembly Elects Leaders

David Trimble, leader of the largest pro-British party, resumed his work as First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, bolstering hopes that the fragile coalition government could begin to operate.

Four days earlier, Protestant hard-liners had threatened to bring down the power-sharing government by blocking Trimble’s return to office but a last second maneuver allowed for a second vote that gave the first minister the victory.

“We will carry through the work, and we will not allow ourselves to be distracted by the sort of mob violence that some parties descend to,” Trimble told reporters Tuesday.

While Trimble spoke, anti-assembly Protestants and pro-peace process Catholic legislators pushed and shouted at one another.

The United Kingdom has had to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly three times due to disputes over the disarming of the Irish Republican Army. Facing the possibility of complete collapse, the IRA announced in late October that it had begun to disarm, sparking a move to reinstate the government.

Both the British and Irish governments welcomed the election of Trimble but stressed it was only the beginning of the political peace process.

“We should be under no illusions that there will still, no doubt, be obstacles to be faced, there will be differences to be overcome,” said Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid. “But there is at least now the prospect that the institutions will work effectively and inclusively as the agreement always intended.”

The assembly also selected Mark Durkan, a member of the largest pro-Irish party, to serve as Trimble’s chief deputy.

Durkan stressed that any true coalition government would need to include those who support the current peace process as well as those who have fought the assembly at every turn.

“That’s how it should be because these inclusive arrangements aren’t just inclusive of people who are pro-agreement,” he added.

Despite calls for new elections to gauge whether the voters still support the assembly, Reid announced there would be no new elections until May 2003.