Associated Press WriterBELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) -- David Trimble narrowly failed to be re-elected as leader of Northern Ireland's unity government Friday, a result that threatens the Catholic-Protestant coalition at the heart of the province's 1998 peace accord.
Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, couldn't rally enough support from the Protestant side of the 108-seat legislature, which must approve the selection of Cabinet ministers. While Catholics unanimously backed Trimble, fellow Protestants voted 30-29 against him -- fatal in a voting system that requires majority support from both camps.
The long-delayed vote, much feared by supporters of the landmark Good Friday peace pact, could throw peacemaking efforts into disarray.
Trimble offered himself for re-election following last week's breakthrough on Irish Republican Army disarmament, when the outlawed group got rid of an undisclosed amount of weaponry in cooperation with disarmament officials. He resigned in July over the IRA's refusal to start scrapping weapons as the 1998 pact envisioned.
But many Protestants viewed the secrecy-shrouded start to IRA disarmament with suspicion, and refused to vote for continuing to run a four-party government that includes the IRA-linked Sinn Fein.
Trimble accused two members of his party who voted against him of behaving "dishonorably" and called them part of "a small, unrepresentative clique" that sought to "frustrate the wishes of the community as a whole."
But Trimble, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to steer Protestants toward compromise, insisted he will rally sufficient Protestant support to win a future vote, though he didn't forecast when.
"Last week we were on a remarkable high with the beginning to (IRA weapons) decommissioning. But over the years we have had our ups and downs and one should not regard today's decision as being in any way final. It is not," he said.
As the largest party in the coalition, Trimble's Ulster Unionists have exclusive claim to the top post of "first minister." Any candidate the party offered would have suffered the same defeat as Trimble, because a narrow majority of Protestant lawmakers now oppose continued cooperation with Sinn Fein.
Britain, which handed considerable authority to the local government upon its creation in December 1999, now faces a difficult choice: Whether to strip power temporarily from local hands or to call a new public election.
Either route carries risks of creating new problems for the peace process.
An indefinite suspension of powers -- favored by the Ulster Unionists and the moderate Catholic-supported party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party -- would allow all factions to enter a new round of negotiations to resolve outstanding issues and revive the power-sharing administration later.
Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, John Reid, began scheduling emergency meetings with individual parties immediately after Friday's vote, but gave no hint of his intentions.
Sinn Fein leaders warned that their supporters won't accept another British resumption of direct control, suggesting the IRA would be unlikely to continue disarmament. This in turn would make it harder to win over wavering Protestants.
If Britain opts for an election, the balance of power in the legislature might grow more difficult. Protestant hard-liners think they could win a clearer majority of Protestant seats, a position that would allow them to veto any Cabinet appointments.
The opposite poles of opinion, Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, both want an election. Both believe voters would make them the largest Catholic and Protestant parties respectively.
Paisley said of Trimble's supporters, "At long last we have given them the bloody nose they deserve for taking part in the charade of (IRA weapons) decommissioning."
Friday was the deadline for Trimble's post to be filled, a deadline extended twice already by Britain in anticipation of IRA disarmament.