N. Ireland Politician Seeks More Than Vote for Assembly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Trimble, widely regarded as Northern Ireland's First Minister-in-waiting, bounded up a suburban driveway to knock on the door of a pro-British, Protestant household.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader was running against the clock before Thursday's vote for a new Northern Ireland government that will include Protestants and Roman Catholics, and, just as important, minutes before a World Cup game between England and Romania.

A woman answered the door with a smile of recognition, and Trimble asked for her support. "Certainly," she said. "As long as you're not selling us down the river."

Trimble assured her that he was not, just as he has tried to persuade the rest of Northern Ireland's Protestant majority to move beyond 30 years of sectarian violence that has taken 3,200 lives and subscribe to his new vision of unionism--working in peace alongside Catholic nationalists and sharing power.

On doorsteps, in radio and television interviews and in a key speech delivered this week, Trimble has appealed to Protestant voters to stick with the Good Friday peace agreement that was embraced by 71% of Northern Ireland voters in a referendum last month. He has told an electorate tired of pessimists and naysayers that he offers something positive--the possibility for change. He urges them to vote not only for his party but for any party that supports the hard-fought accord--and not for those vowing to wreck it.

Early polls indicate that Trimble's party will get the most votes in the election for a 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly. If that translates into seats--the vote is by district--Trimble will become First Minister of a 12-member executive committee drawn from the Assembly.

But the bookish Trimble is not taking anything for granted. Protestant unionists have splintered badly, and he is competing for seats with four other pro-British parties. If the Ulster Unionists' lead over them shrinks, Trimble's party could find itself in second place behind Catholic nationalists in the Social Democratic and Labor Party. And, although it is a long shot, SDLP leader John Hume could end up as first minister.

Trimble, however, seems more worried about opponents of the peace agreement he helped to craft than he is about Hume. He is campaigning hard against the Rev. Ian Paisley, of the Democratic Unionist Party, and other rejectionists.

The agreement is a compromise between the Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland, who see themselves as British and want to remain part of Britain, and Catholic nationalists, who want to be united with the Irish Republic, which was given independence in 1921. Hammered out with Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, the accord calls for Northern Ireland to remain in Britain unless a majority of the residents votes to change this.

It also takes local government out of the hands of the British and turns it over to the Assembly.

Protestants and Catholics are to have a shared say in the new government. Important decisions will require the assent of both groups of lawmakers--a built-in guarantee that one side cannot dominate the other.

But opponents such as Paisley say they can use this to their advantage. They claim that if they win 30 seats in the new Assembly, they can block key elements of the agreement, which delicately balances Protestant and Catholic demands.

Trimble, though, thinks the opposition campaign is running out of steam. He said on a stop for tea Monday night: "If they get 30 seats, we've done badly.

"I am reasonably certain the rejectionists will not get 28.8%," he added, referring to the size of the "no" vote in the May 22 referendum.

Paisley is playing to the fears of Protestants, who historically have dominated this region and are nervous about the agreement, which will bring Sinn Fein into the new legislature.

Even supporters of the accord say they fear the release of paramilitary prisoners under the deal and want to see the IRA give up its guns. The agreement calls for the political parties to work for the "decommissioning" of weapons from Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups but does not require it before the new government is installed.

Trimble, in urging voters to overcome their fears and trust him to look out for their interests, is himself trying to make the leap from sectarian politician to statesman. In a speech to business leaders earlier Monday, he spoke of accommodating cultural and religious diversity and held out an olive branch to Sinn Fein.

"There is no party that is wholly outside the political process," he said. "We can now get down to the historic and honorable task of this generation--to raise up a new Northern Ireland in which pluralist unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility that is the foundation of freedom."

He warned that Sinn Fein could not hold on to the threat of armed struggle but added, "Once we can speak in freedom, once we are agreed that our only weapons will be words, then there is nothing that cannot be said."

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams is dismissive of Trimble's softened rhetoric, saying he needs to take action to ensure that the days of Catholic second-class citizenship are over. In particular, Adams is critical of Trimble's support for traditional Protestant marches through Catholic neighborhoods.

Trimble is quietly confident of success in Thursday's vote. But the wear and tear of a grueling year of politics have begun to show, as was clear when he sat around the kitchen table at the home of a supporter in Portadown. He was there with one of his candidates, a bodyguard and a handful of campaign staff members.

He had gone from round-the-clock negotiations to finish the peace agreement in time for Easter to a six-week campaign for a referendum on the accord and then on to a five-week race for the Assembly. He admitted to fatigue and complained his legs are stiffening.

"This is a rarity to see him stop for tea and sandwiches," said Mark Neale, the Portadown candidate. "Some people believe he runs on air."

But the egg sandwiches and apple tart seemed to revive the aching politician. In a flash, he was up from the table and nearly sprinting down the cul-de-sac to jam leaflets into mailboxes and pound on front doors. And he was buoyed by the response.

"We're all behind you," said a neighbor, Dolores Dixon. "We hope you do well for us and that peace breaks out at last."

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