Much more than 18 Northern Irish Parliamentary seats were at stake here last week in the first British general election since the "Good Friday" peace agreement in 1998. The election was a referendum on how the peace agreement, under which provincial power is shared by Protestants and Catholics, has been implemented. For the unionist community, so called because of its desire to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the vote was also a judgment on the stewardship of Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, co-winner of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in securing the agreement. Unfortunately for Trimble, and for those who had hoped that unionist voters would send a clear pro-treaty message, the results indicate a growing polarization that could threaten the peace.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, a Protestant minister who has made a political career out of a blend of patriotism and anti-Catholic bigotry, saw his Democratic Unionist Party defeat Trimble's in three closely watched races and come close to unseating Trimble in his own district. The Democratic Unionists have condemned virtually every aspect of the peace treaty, branding Trimble as the man who "sold unionists out." Paisley has urged him to withdraw from his post as first minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly for allowing Sinn Fein "terrorists" into government without first disarming the Irish Republican Army. There are many who fear that the Democratic Unionist Party's ultimate goal is to wreck the assembly and the agreement.
A British general election tragically affected the search for peace in Northern Ireland once before. In 1973-74, the "Sunningdale" agreement created a power-sharing government of unionists and largely Catholic nationalists similar to today's peace treaty. In February 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath called for a general election. Unionists who campaigned against Sunningdale won 11 of 12 parliamentary seats. Brian Faulkner was forced to resign as leader of the largest unionist party because of his support of Sunningdale. The following May, the Protestant Ulster Workers Council called a general strike. The British government refused to send in the soldiers to break it up, and Northern Ireland's brief experiment in constitutional government ended abruptly. Twenty years of gruesome sectarian warfare followed.
While Northern Ireland's social and political life retains some of the sectarian mind-set that has caused so much suffering, much has changed. Sinn Fein boycotted the 1974 political arrangements; today, two of its ministers are members of the power-sharing government. The IRA, furthermore, has permitted three inspections of its weapons dumps by the Independent Commission on Disarmament. But it is clear from last week's voting, that for the unionist community, inspections are not good enough.
Sinn Fein made an unexpectedly strong showing Thursday. Its overall vote was up throughout Northern Ireland, and it won a key race in West Tyrone against the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the more moderate nationalist party. Pat Doherty, Sinn Fein's successful candidate, told a large gathering at the vote count that his party is at the heart of Irish politics and that it can work with the unionist community.
But working things out in Northern Ireland won't be easy. According to Trimble advisor and Queen's University historian Paul Bew, Trimble can survive a net loss of two parliamentary seats and still remain party leader. Problem is, the Ulster Unionists have gone from nine seats to six. While Trimble did not experience a total electoral meltdown like Faulkner did in 1974, the outcome clearly shows that unionist support for the treaty is faltering.
In an attempt to silence criticism from within his own party and from Paisley during the campaign, Trimble had submitted a letter, dated July 1, asserting that if the IRA had not begun arms decommissioning by that date, he would resign as first minister. Trimble was fishing for IRA support that he is unlikely to get, at least not on his time schedule. Sinn Fein has always said that it wants to disarm but only as part of an overall agreement. That means reform of the police force and removal of the British security apparatus. Trimble clearly needs more from the IRA than its acceptance of arms inspections.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose Labor Party easily won in Britain's elections, is scheduled to travel to Belfast next week in an attempt to finalize negotiations on some outstanding issues. Like former President Bill Clinton sought in the Middle East, Blair wants peace in Northern Ireland to be a part of his historic legacy, but his job has now become more difficult.
As for Trimble, he faces a vote of his party council later this month that will determine his political fate. If he is deposed, his replacement will be an opponent of the current power-sharing agreement. The peace process will be thrown into chaos. The Real IRA, a splinter group that insists on torturing the citizens of Northern Ireland through a bombing campaign, will undoubtedly tell wavering republicans that the unionist community cannot fundamentally change.
The good news is that Sinn Fein 's political success will knit them more firmly into politics. The party has attracted a young, dynamic group of activists by concentrating on immediate economic and social progress. The question of unity with the Irish Republic has taken a back seat to what they call "changes on the ground."
This is a time when William Butler Yeats' "center" must hold. Northern Ireland's new political institutions have been functioning fairly effectively. Politicians are carrying out the unglamorous day-to-day tasks of running schools, providing housing and fixing streets. Despite Democratic Unionist posturing about renegotiating the power-sharing agreement, a significant change in direction is unlikely, given Sinn Fein's new mandate. If the assembly can get a few more years under its belt, Northern Ireland might begin to resemble a normal society.