Setbacks to N. Ireland Accord Steal Thunder of Blair Victory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Prime Minister Tony Blair formed a new government Friday on the heels of a sweeping electoral victory, his Protestant allies in Northern Ireland suffered a setback, casting doubt on the future of the peace process there.

Blair paid a traditional postelection call on Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace before returning to 10 Downing St. to reshuffle his Cabinet for the Labor Party's second term.

Labor's landslide--amid the worst voter turnout since 1918--was "a mandate for reform and for investment in the future, and it is also very clearly an instruction to deliver," Blair said.

Opposition Conservative leader William Hague, meanwhile, resigned Friday as party chief, opening the door for a bruising succession battle between Tories who favor a pro-European policy and those who oppose it, as Hague did during his failed campaign.

But attention turned suddenly to Northern Ireland late Friday as the vote count dealt a serious blow to Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble, who heads the province's Protestant-Roman Catholic power-sharing government.

Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose party had nine seats in the previous British Parliament, barely held on to his own seat against David Simpson, a relative unknown from the Rev. Ian Paisley's anti-peace-deal Democratic Unionist Party, and the Ulster Unionists lost two others to hard-liners.

With the Protestant vote divided, Trimble's party also lost two seats to the Irish Republican Army's political ally, Sinn Fein. The Ulster Unionists threatened to challenge one of those in court over alleged irregularities.

The evangelist Paisley cruised to victory in the North Antrim seat he has held since 1970.

"Protestants are sickened at the sight of terrorists at the heart of our government," said Paisley lieutenant Nigel Dodds, who took one of the seats from Trimble's party. "We will do everything we can to expel this cancer from the body politic."

The poor result for Trimble cast doubt on his ability to retain the leadership of his party, which is also divided over the peace process. Without Trimble, or another moderate Protestant, Northern Ireland's fledgling government could collapse and take the 1998 Good Friday peace accord down with it.

As Trimble left the vote count--and recount--in his Upper Bann constituency under police escort, he was jostled, shouted at and called "traitor" by Protestant opponents who threw dirt at his departing car.

"We are not quitters. We will stick with this job until it is done properly," Trimble said.

But he could face a challenge at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party council this month. Waiting in the wings is an opponent of the Good Friday accord, Jeffrey Donaldson, who increased his margin of victory in the election while Trimble's dropped to less than a quarter of what it was four years ago.

There was also a political shift among Catholics in Northern Ireland, with Sinn Fein overtaking the Social Democratic and Labor Party as the province's largest nationalist party. Sinn Fein doubled its seats to four, including the Fermanagh and South Tyrone district disputed by the Ulster Unionists. That seat was once held by imprisoned IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died in 1981.

Sinn Fein does not take its seats in the House of Commons because the party supports a united Ireland and its members refuse to swear allegiance to the queen in keeping with parliamentary rules. But its members of Parliament receive offices at Westminster and represent their constituents.

The Social Democratic and Labor Party--whose leader, John Hume, shared the Nobel Prize with Trimble--failed to add to its three seats in Parliament.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams registered a huge majority in his West Belfast constituency. The party's other incumbent, Martin McGuinness, who acknowledged this year that he once was a top IRA leader, increased his own majority in Londonderry.

Paisley said he will use his new mandate to press Blair to deliver on pledges on IRA disarmament he has made while urging the peace process forward.

"I will be saying very loudly to Mr. Blair when I meet him: 'You have now got to keep your word. Cut out all the lying and cheating and keep your word,' " Paisley said.

Trimble has already threatened to resign as first minister if the IRA does not begin to empty its arms dumps by July 1.

In London, speculation centered on how quickly Blair will move to take Britain into the common European currency, as he replaced pro-Europe Foreign Secretary Robin Cook with Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is lukewarm on the euro.

Traders clearly believe that the euro is coming to Britain eventually, as the pound continued to drop against the dollar to a 15-year low.

Blair kept Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who led the party's election campaign, and promoted Education Secretary David Blunkett to home secretary, in charge of overseeing police and the justice system. Cook was sent to run the Labor majority in the House of Commons.

While Labor celebrated its 167-seat majority in the House of Commons--down by 12 from the 1997 landslide--the Tories licked their wounds. They gained just one seat, while Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, gained eight. The final results gave Labor 413 seats in the 659-seat chamber, the Conservatives 166, the Liberal Democrats 52, and other parties the rest.

In stepping down, Hague told supporters outside party headquarters, "I wish I could have led you to victory, but now we must all work for our victories in the future. . . . It is vital for leaders to listen and parties to change."

Hague's second in command, Michael Portillo, is favored by bettors and political analysts as the likely successor, but he could have a fight on his hands from right-wingers Iain Duncan Smith and Ann Widdecombe, or from pro-European Kenneth Clarke, the leader of the party's moderate wing.

As the party began its public and private debate, the most famous Tory, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, acknowledged the "disappointing result," adding: "But my friends, make no mistake. The Conservative Party will be back."

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Special correspondent William Graham in Belfast, Northern Ireland, contributed to this report.

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