Northern Ireland's coalition government has been thrown into disarray as lawmakers have refused to reinstall Protestant leader David Trimble as senior minister.
Northern Ireland Protestant leader David Trimble has lost a vote to return as the province's first minister.
His defeat raises questions about the future of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland under a 1998 peace agreement aimed at ending three decades of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.
In Friday's action, all the Catholic members of the 108 seat Northern Ireland assembly voted for Mr. Trimble, but Protestant hard-liners in his own party narrowly edged him out.
Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, was meeting later with political leaders to discuss his next move. Mr. Reid would like to break the impasse without having to call new elections or restore direct British rule over the province. He has to make a decision by midnight Saturday.
Friday's vote came just one week after the Irish Republican Army had given the peace process a major boost with its decision to begin disarmament.
Mr. Trimble had praised the IRA's move, but some hard-liners in his party expressed doubts that the Catholic militia was committed to peace, and they object to sharing power with Sein Fein, the IRA's political wing.
Sein Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness has said it is time for new elections. "In the wake of today's result, it is incumbent upon the British government to give the electorate their say," he said.
For his part, Mr. Trimble has vowed that the peace process will not fail. "One should not regard today's decision as being in any way final. It is not. This process is not ended by it. This process is, as I said from the outset, remarkably robust and it will proceed," he said.
What Mr. Trimble did not say is how Northern Ireland will get past this latest obstacle on its long and difficult road toward peace.