Northern Ireland's Protestants have given the Rev. Ian Paisley and his hard-line Democratic Unionist Party the majority of their votes in elections for the province's Assembly, partial returns showed Thursday, signaling that they were prepared to risk the collapse of the Good Friday peace accord rather than make more concessions to keep it alive.
The early results from Wednesday's elections are the sharpest indication yet that the Protestant majority regards itself as the loser under the 1998 deal that brought them into a power-sharing government with Roman Catholics. Paisley's party has long advocated abandoning the peace deal -- although it campaigned during these elections on a platform of merely renegotiating it from top to bottom.
"We are going to have a proper negotiation for a new agreement that will enable the Democrats, and the Democrats only, to buy into something that is stable," Paisley said Thursday.
How such talks would take place, and among whom, remained uncertain. Paisley has vowed not to talk with, let alone bargain with, Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. Sinn Fein was poised to emerge from the election as the leading Catholic party.
Ian Paisley Jr., the party leader's son, who was elected to the Assembly, reflected the party's visceral anti-Good Friday mood, telling reporters, "Today, there has been a nail hammered very hard into the coffin of the Belfast agreement."
The accord was essentially a mechanism for the IRA to swap violence for politics in pursuit of its aim of a united Ireland, a bargain that was initially greeted with euphoria on all sides in Northern Ireland.
But the joy dissipated as Protestants grew increasingly surly over what they saw as the IRA's manipulation of the pact's requirement that the IRA destroy its weapons as the price of entry into government. Weapons "decommissioning" has been a stuttering process, with the IRA occasionally giving up portions of its arsenal whenever extreme political pressure demands, but so far refusing to surrender all of what is clearly its biggest bargaining chip.
Protestants' anger grew with every missed deadline for IRA compliance. And the elder Paisley has been the unrelenting voice of their grievance throughout, scolding the Protestant moderate Ulster Unionist Party and its leader, David Trimble, for allowing IRA decommissioning obligations to slide.
Those who voted for Sinn Fein voted for "mayhem and killing men and women and the bombing of this country and hiding bodies for 30 years," Paisley said. "We'll not be talking to a bunch of liars and murderers."
But if Paisley is to make any attempt to govern Northern Ireland, he may need to find a way to work with his adversaries. Under the British province's complex voting system, the final party standings will not be known until late tonight, and Trimble's party may still squeak past Paisley's.
And if the trend seen in Thursday's counting continues, Sinn Fein, under the leadership of Gerry Adams, will emerge as the strongest Catholic party, displacing the more moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party.
The gaping divide between Paisley and Adams may mean that the British and Irish governments -- midwives of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government -- may not even bother to try getting an executive up and running. The Good Friday agreement is legally required to be "reviewed" in December, and many observers expect London and Dublin to see how far they can push the "review" into "renegotiation."
Yet however the outcome is finessed, the 77-year-old Paisley, a bellicose fixture in Northern Ireland politics since the 1960s, has served notice that Protestant opinion will be harder to mollify.
The architects of the accord have frequently tried to marginalize Paisley and his party colleagues, barring them from events such as President Bush's April visit to Northern Ireland, when the presence of "anti-agreement parties" was deemed unwelcome. And there was great derision of Paisley in 2001 when he issued a statement describing line dancing as "sinful," warning that it "clearly caters to the lust of the flesh."
But as Protestants' dissatisfaction with the accord grew, Paisley's persistent voice came to sound increasingly in tune with their mood.
"Paisley's got old-fashioned notions of right and wrong, good and bad," said historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, a sympathetic chronicler of Northern Ireland's Protestants. "He can tell them, 'I stood for this five years ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago.' And that's reassuring to people.
"Ulster Protestants are people who live by an Old Testament code. They've been good to their neighbors, never cheated people, been loyal to their queen, and for 30 years they've seen their brothers and husbands killed by the IRA. And now the British government tells them that they're the ones who have to give a little more, that they're the ones who are anti-peace? It's ludicrous. So can you blame them if they turn to Paisley?"