N. Ireland Accord Wins but Dissent Still Strong
Much like this region’s island weather, Northern Ireland’s election for a new self-rule government has cast sun and gloom on the political landscape at the same time.
Protestant and Roman Catholic voters reiterated their desire to make the Good Friday peace accord work by sending a strong pro-agreement majority to the new Northern Ireland Assembly. Their collective voice of moderation will be greater than the sectarian voices of dissent and fear.
But it is not clear whether the advocates of change will be strong enough to guarantee the success of the 108-member Assembly and the survival of the bullets-to-ballots peace process.
Catholic nationalists, once split between those who believed violence was the best way to achieve their goal of a united Ireland and those who argued for a political struggle, cast an overwhelming vote Thursday in support of their pro-agreement candidates.
They did so in the belief that they stand to gain something from the new cross-community politics of Northern Ireland--a share of power, social equality and, perhaps one day, unity with the Republic of Ireland.
Pro-Britsh Protestants, on the other hand, are nervous about losing the lock on power they have long enjoyed and fear that their ties to the United Kingdom could unravel with the new government. As a result, they split their votes between supporters and opponents of the accord.
David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party took the most seats in the new legislature--28--and he is likely to become first minister of Northern Ireland.
But the Ulster Unionists got their lowest vote in history, and Trimble, who has tried to bring mainstream unionism on board with the agreement, has been weakened by the results.
Parties opposing the agreement fell short of their goal of 30 seats in the new legislature, but with 28 seats, they will have a large enough presence to dog Trimble’s every move. The rejectionists’ goal will be to eat away at his bare Protestant majority and try to fatally wound the peace accord from within the Assembly it created.
Trimble and Catholic John Hume, the moderate nationalist leader of the Social and Democratic Labor Party, which won 24 seats, will have to work closely to ensure that the political center prevails. This is one of the goals of the peace process--Protestants and Catholics working together--and yet it is problematic for Trimble.
“It is going to be a real white-knuckle ride for a while,” said Paul Bew, a political scientist at Queen’s University in Belfast.
“Technically, very few problems will arise from this election result. In fact, there are none,” Bew said. “But as a matter of political reality, David Trimble does not want to proceed on the basis of an alliance with nationalism. He does not want to push through decisions against the will of his own people.”
Major decisions can be passed in the new Assembly by a majority of Protestants and Catholics or by 60% of the whole body, but approval of both communities is generally seen as necessary for maintaining political stability and the legitimacy of the peace process.
The Assembly is expected to meet for the first time this week. It will elect a first minister and deputy, probably Trimble and Hume, and set up a working committee. The Assembly and its duties must be formally established, along with a North-South Council to coordinate island-wide policies with Dublin.
For nationalists, the North-South Council is a key element of the peace agreement establishing a formal link with the Irish Republic.
Protestant opponents of the peace process, such as the Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party, have vowed to try to block this.
“No step will be taken that endangers the union” of Northern Ireland with Britain, said Peter Robinson, who was elected to the Assembly in Paisley’s party. “We will go into the Assembly with that in mind. Our intention is to work the Assembly to the advantage of unionist people.”
Meanwhile, there is the question of whether the Protestants’ annual Drumcree Parade will be allowed to march through a Catholic neighborhood of the town of Portadown next week. The march has often led to clashes between Protestants and Catholics.
Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, has been pushing for the Parades Commission to reroute the march, arguing that this is no time for a “triumphalist” Protestant parade.
Trimble says the rights of the marchers should be respected. He stands to lose Protestant support if the march is diverted or if it goes forward and encounters resistance from Catholics.
Adams will be pushing for Trimble to set up a 12-member Cabinet called a “shadow government” until legislation is passed in the British Parliament next year to formally establish the Northern Ireland government. Trimble, in turn, will try to put off forming the executive body for as long as possible to avoid meeting with Adams.
Despite the fact that both sides negotiated the peace agreement and signed off on it, Trimble has refused to meet with Adams or talk to him.
Trimble’s constituents do not want Adams in government unless the IRA hands over its weapons .
Besides the debate over “decommissioning” of weapons, the issue of a prisoner release also lies ahead--letting IRA prisoners out of jail is another tough issue for Trimble.
Unfortunately, uncertainty over these contentious issues and Trimble’s weak showing have overshadowed the dizzying pace at which the peace process has been advancing.
The deal was signed on Easter Sunday, and on May 22, an overwhelming 71% of Northern Ireland voters approved the pact in the province’s largest voter turnout.
A month later, as the Assembly vote was being counted, Protestants and Catholics, Paisleyites, former paramilitary members and Sinn Fein leaders walked around the ornate Belfast City Hall with their warring party badges, talking to side-by-side television cameras if not to one another.
“The speed at which everything has moved has been like lightning,” said Monica McWilliams, who won a seat in the Assembly for the Women’s Coalition. “We have turned a new page.”