By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Fists, kicks, insults and abuse flew around the marble halls of Stormont Tuesday in the minutes after the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, was reinstated as first minister.
As Trimble struggled to be heard over the undignified fracas, members of the DUP and anti-agreement Northern Ireland Unionist Party fought with members of the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein.
There is claim and counterclaim about who was responsible for kicking off the “Brawl in the Hall,” as it is already being called, but most attention centered on supporters brought to Stormont by anti-agreement unionists.
The scuffle, lasting about 10 minutes, broke out after Trimble and the SDLP leader-in-waiting, Mark Durkan, were reelected as first minister and deputy first minister and were trying to make victory speeches to the press.
Plainclothes detectives, police officers and Stormont security staff battled to keep rival factions apart as furious nationalist and unionist politicians surged toward each other. Although the officers were armed, none pulled a gun during the row in what was the first policing incident of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which came into being on Sunday, Nov. 4.
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Trimble’s comments were drowned out by jeers of “traitor” and “go to your Provo-IRA scumbag friends” from DUP members, including Ian Paisley Jr., whose voice could clearly be heard above the commotion.
One woman member, Joan Carson of the UUP, was pushed to the ground and other members displayed their bruises later and said they would be seeking medical attention and legal advice.
Anti-agreement members were furious that Trimble had been reelected on the back of votes from the moderate Alliance Party, three of whose members redesignated themselves as Unionist to secure a majority for Trimble.
Sean Farren, an SDLP minister at the Assembly, claimed the DUP was to blame for the flareup. Anti-agreement assemblyman Roger Hutchinson, displaying a bruise on his leg, said he had been kicked by a Sinn Fein member.
Trimble later denounced the clashes, saying, “We will not allow ourselves to be distracted by the sort of mob violence some parties descended to.”
Durkan, in a brief speech to the press, said, “We are determined to provide this region with good government; others are determined to provide only bad politics.”
Ninety-nine Assembly members participated in the vote for the first and deputy first minister, with 60 unionists taking part following the Alliance redesignations.
Crucially, 31 unionist assembly members backed Trimble and Durkan to fill the posts — 51.7 percent of those present. All 38 nationalists present voted in favor of the Trimble-Durkan election.
Three Alliance Party members had earlier successfully redesignated themselves as unionist to secure the unionist majority Trimble needed to win the vote. They redesignated themselves back to the “other” category immediately after the vote.
The election came only after two failed bids to reinstate Trimble, who had resigned in July in protest at the delays in IRA decommissioning. The first failed attempt came last Friday when two dissident members of the UUP broke ranks and defied their party executive’s call to support him.
Hard-liners Pauline Armitage, from East Derry, and Peter Weir, from North Down, both oppose the Good Friday agreement and have become increasingly alienated from their party leader.
Their actions on Friday led to the motion in favor of Trimble failing by one vote to attract a majority of unionists.
Although 70 percent of the assembly membership supported the ticket, the total of unionists in favor was 49.2 percent. The Assembly’s rules require a majority of both sides of the chamber to pass a motion.
A last-minute move by one member of the two-assembly-member, non-aligned Women’s Coalition party to redesignate herself as a unionist failed to prevent the motion failing.
The anti-agreement DUP leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, was jubilant Friday, calling for new Assembly elections and promising to renegotiate the agreement. “At long last we have given them the bloody nose they deserve,” he said.
Trimble himself said the vote “had not been effective, because of the actions of a couple of individuals.” In a stinging attack on Weir and Armitage, he said they had “not honored their mandate or honored their pledges” and that they had “behaved dishonorably.”
In the hours after the embarrassing failure to elect Trimble, increasing pressure came on the Alliance Party, with five members, to follow the Women’s Coalition example and redesignate itself as unionists so its votes would count in his favor.
But Alliance held out until late on Saturday night, when its leaders finally agreed, in return for the promise of a review of future voting procedures.
Knowing that enough Alliance members were willing to temporarily become unionists, Paisley’s DUP moved swiftly on two fronts to block Trimble’s second bid for election on Monday.
In the courts, it sought a judicial review on whether the British Northern Ireland secretary of state, John Reid, had acted within his powers in failing to call new assembly elections at midnight on Nov. 3, when the deadline ran out and no first minister had been elected.
As this case was being heard in the High Court in downtown Belfast, the DUP was fighting to block Trimble’s election on a second front, helping sign a so-called “Petition of Concern” — a procedural device that delayed the vote for another 24 hours.
The DUP case in the High Court was dismissed on the basis that it was reasonable to expect the Northern secretary to consult with the parties before he set a date for new assembly elections.
Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said: “The DUP are very determined to bring down the agreement and have, on this occasion, been outmaneuvered by the pro-agreement parties. But we have to continue doing that.
“Anybody watching closely will see that all the cows were in one corner and they were all being led by Ian Paisley.”
Taking the animal analogy further, the Alliance leader, David Ford, admitted that he was playing the “rear end of a pantomime horse” in temporarily pretending to be a unionist.
Seamus Mallon, former deputy first minister and ex-deputy SDLP leader, recalled witnessing fisticuffs in the chamber during the power-sharing Assembly of 1973. “I had hoped in the subsequent 30 years things may have changed,” he told the House.
“I don’t want to see things returning to the performances of 1973. We have had . . . an unseemly weekend, an unseemly week. I don’t want to see this Assembly, this Executive, this political process being manipulated by anyone.”