(Opinion): Extremist gains slow momentum of Good Friday Accords

by John Darby

Northern Ireland’s voters have rejected the great leap forward of the Good Friday Agreement. At first glance, recent election results look like a great leap back to the old familiar suspicions and violence.p. Why did it happen? The key to the maneuverings in Northern Ireland over the last decade is not to be found in competition between the Catholic and Protestant blocs, but in the struggles within them.p. The elections for the Northern Ireland assembly on Nov. 28 resulted in a significant shift toward more extreme parties. In the 108-member assembly, the moderate Ulster Unionist Party, won 27 seats, losing ground among Protestant voters to Dr. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party with 30. Both parties favor the union with Britain, but the DUP opposes the Good Friday Agreement. On the Catholic side of the political chasm, Sinn Fein’s 24 seats pushed them ahead of the Social Democratic and Labour Party with 18 seats. For the first time Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist party.p. The results appear to have put on hold a peace process regarded as an inspiration to others mired in ethnic violence. In 1994 the Provisional IRA, which had been fighting for a united Ireland since the early 1970s, declared a cease-fire. The main loyalist paramilitary groups, which were prepared to fight for union with Britain, soon followed suit. The negotiations that followed resulted in an agreement signed on Good Friday 1998.p. Since then the historic breakthrough has been frustrated by a succession of problems in implementing the agreement. Unionist refused to stay in government with other pro-agreement parties until the IRA handed over its weapons. The IRA hedged. The reform of the police force was bitterly contested between nationalists and unionists. At times it appeared that the breakthrough was being squandered.p. Behind the bluster and disappointments, other aspects of the agreement have been quietly and successfully implemented. Before dismissing Northern Ireland’s electoral wantonness, consider the accomplishments.p. The 1994 cease-fires have, in the main, held firm. An assembly and executive, including both Unionists and Sinn Fein ministers, have been operating quite smoothly, although both are currently suspended; 2,000 political prisoners have been released. A North-South Ministerial Council, dealing with issues common to both parts of Ireland, is up and running; so is a British-Irish Ministerial Council. The constitution of the Irish Republic has been altered to remove its territorial claim on Northern Ireland.p. Still, the voters have at best taken a step away from the agreement. At worst they have created a dangerous vacuum. Their willingness to take this risk was dictated by the nature of ethnic politics.p. Unlike most modern democracies where elections are determined by swings in the center ground, elections in ethnically divided societies like Northern Ireland are contested primarily between parties fighting for control of the same ethnic groups. Consequently, centrist parties such are preoccupied by the need to prevent slippage toward the extremes. In times of crisis, voters edge toward the parties whose positions are more unequivocal.p. The greatest threat for the UUP’s leader David Trimble is that his deeply divided party may move against the agreement and his leadership, and that their supporters would switch to the DUP.p. The SDLP faces a rather similar problem, that Catholic voters would drift toward Sinn Fein, also a pro-agreement party. Less noticed is the drift problem facing the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, despite his election triumph. His freedom of action during negotiations has been limited by his need to ensure that his more militant supporters were kept on board.p. These dilemmas facing Trimble and Adams are unlikely to alter in the immediate future. The new and less predictable element is the emergence of the DUP as the largest party representing Protestant opinion.p. For the first time the DUP may be forced to accept real responsibility. It has covertly cooperated with Sinn Fein and other parties while maintaining strong rhetorical opposition to power-sharing. This strategy will now be severely tested. If the DUP continues its refusal to share power, the consequence is continuing direct rule from Britain. The party’s leaders dislike direct rule, so they will have to choose between public posturing and private practice.p. Consider the dog that didn’t bark. No one is talking about a return to the 30-year war that preceded the peace process. The political parties are relatively relaxed about future developments. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the first ministers of the United Kingdom and Ireland, are patiently planning a series of talks with the parties before Christmas. This has been the most striking achievement of Northern Ireland’s peace process.p. _ John Darby is professor for International Ethnic Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame. _

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