Northern Ireland elections ?Flight from centre? rocks Blair

Both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn F?in made big gains in last week?s elections. Michael Malkin assesses the effect on the peace process

?Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.? It may be that these words of WB Yeats cannot - as yet - be applied to the politics of the north of Ireland, and it is certainly too soon to say that ?mere anarchy is loosed upon the world?. The events of June 7, however, undoubtedly foreshadow a period of high tension and perhaps a real crisis in the coming weeks and months.

On the mainland, media attention has primarily been focused on the plight of David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and first minister. In the wake of extremely poor results for the UUP both in the Westminster and local council elections, Trimble?s leadership appears severely, perhaps fatally, damaged. On June 23 he must face the 860-strong party council and a possible leadership challenge from the anti-agreement Rev Martin Smyth (MP for Belfast South) He contested the leadership unsuccessfully in March last year. A bid for the leadership from Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley and hitherto seen as Trimble?s heir apparent, is also a possibility. Even if he survives the council meeting, Trimble has already said that he will resign as first minister on July 1 unless there is progress on decommissioning.

More broadly last week?s elections showed  support moving away from the moderate parties of the centre - the UUP and the Social Democratic and Labour Party - towards their extreme counterparts - the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn F?in. The effect was consistent in both polls. The DUP and SF now claim the support of the majority of voters in their respective unionist and nationalist/republican communities.

Let us begin by looking at the Westminster results. As of June 7, the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies are represented as follows: UUP - six seats (two gains, five losses; a net loss of three seats); DUP - five seats (three gains, one loss; a net gain of two seats); SF - four seats (two gains); SDLP - three seats (no change).

Trimble can take scant comfort from his party?s two gains. David Burnside managed to recapture Antrim South from the DUP?s Robert McCrea, who took the seat in a by-election. But Burnside?s majority was only a shade over two percent. In Down North, Lady Sylvia Hermon beat the local maverick and staunch rejectionist Bob McCartney of the United Kingdom Unionist Party, but her victory was possible only because the Alliance Party stood aside.

The UUP?s three losses to the DUP made crystal clear the level of grassroots unionist disillusionment with the Good Friday agreement and the peace process in general. In Belfast North, Nigel Dodds, one of the DUP?s young Turks, inflicted a well forecast humiliation on the UUP?s sitting member, 76-year old Cecil Walker, who was reduced to fourth place in the poll, with a mere 12% of the vote, as against Dodds?s 40%. In the run-up to the election, Walker did not help himself by conceding the inevitability of a united Ireland. Gains by Greg Campbell in Derry East and Iris Robinson in Strangford (the seat vacated by John Taylor of the UUP), though showing less dramatic swings to the DUP, confirmed the general pattern.

Trimble?s own result in Upper Bann also provided a shock, with his majority reduced to just over 2,000 votes over the DUP candidate. During his acceptance speech, Trimble was heckled with calls of ?traitor? and afterwards even a police escort could not save him and his wife from being manhandled by an angry crowd of Paisley supporters.

If you add up all the votes cast for the two main unionist parties in the Westminster elections, the result is as follows: UUP - 216,809; DUP - 181,999 - a UUP lead of some 19%. But it is important to remember that the DUP did not stand in four constituencies, and if counting is restricted to those seats where the two parties both stood against one another, then the figures are: UUP - 146,538; DUP - 163,450 - a DUP lead of 11.5%. In the end, of course, it is not arithmetic that matters, but perceptions. And the clear perception, backed by the just quoted figures, is that the DUP can now lay claim to represent the majority of unionist voters.

The results of the local council elections tell a similar story of support moving from the centre to the extremes on both sides of the divide: UUP - 154 seats (down 31); DUP - 131 (up 40); SDLP - 117 (down three); SF - 108 (up 34). The feelings of the UUP old guard are aptly summed up by an unidentified ?senior party member?: ?There is no hiding the fact that these elections have been a total disaster. Our vote collapsed. In areas where traditional working class ?prods? never had any truck with Paisley they deserted en masse to the DUP? (The Daily Telegraph June 13).

Another senior party source, only too aware of the long-term electoral implications of the present situation, said that, ?The agreement has failed to deliver the stability that we were told it would bring. The system as it stands is mad because, with the nationalist vote coalescing around Sinn F?in and the SDLP collapsing but the DUP and UUP running neck and neck, then the IRA?s political wing will emerge as the largest party at the next elections. That can only mean that our next Northern Ireland first minister will be Gerry Adams? (ibid).

Move to DUP

One of the effects of a growing sense of defeatism in the UUP?s ranks is that the more able, younger unionists who want to get ahead in politics are moving into the DUP. Despite its image as essentially a vehicle for the fire-breathing fundamentalist Presbyterianism of Dr Paisley, it has no shortage of up-and-coming politicians like Nigel Dodds. When the legislative assembly and power-sharing executive first came into being, Paisley vowed that he would enter it only to wreck it, but events soon led him to change course.

If the common consensus is correct - that, under Trimble?s leadership, the UUP is being deserted wholesale by the protestant working class and that, ?If he hangs on for much longer the party will implode? (ibid) - the DUP seems unlikely to take a purely destructive approach, rather than trying to press home its considerable and growing political advantage. Sharp confrontation upfront, but a more pragmatic stance behind the scenes appears to be a probable scenario, though with the marching season almost upon us and tensions inevitably raised nothing is for certain.

It is against this background that Trimble?s fate and the immediate future of the UUP as the moderate face of Ulster unionism will be decided. The first minister flew to London on June 12 for emergency talks with Tony Blair. His aim was to urge the British prime minister and his Irish counterpart to bolster the interests of the centre ground in the north of Ireland by bringing pressure to bear on the IRA to make some significant move in the direction of decommissioning its arms.

In a published statement, Trimble reiterated his determination to resign as first minister on July 1: ?If we come to the end of this month which the government had set as the period for full implementation of the agreement and we find that the agreement with regards to decommissioning has not been implemented, then I am absolutely determined to follow through in terms of drawing a line and causing a crisis in the institutions by resigning ... I made that absolutely clear. I underlined that to the prime minister at the end of the day ... We specifically warned the prime minister about getting into a situation of so-called negotiation where the republicans will sit on the same horse for the umpteenth time ... It really is a time where promises should be kept, obligations should be carried out and we shouldn?t have this sort of situation? (Irish News June 13).

The newly elected UUP MP for Antrim South, David Burnside, who has abandoned his earlier anti-agreement stance and attended the Downing Street meeting along with Trimble and Lady Hermon, claimed on June 12 that Sinn F?in president Gerry Adams is on the verge of announcing - as a conciliatory gesture - that one of the IRA?s weapons dumps has been permanently sealed. The story was denied by SF North Belfast representative Gerry Kelly.

The most recent authoritative statement from the IRA on the subject of decommissioning, issued on May 31, was published in last week?s issue of An Phoblacht: ?Since March 8 our representative has been involved in an ongoing series of discussions with the independent international commission on decommissioning, including four meetings. This continuing dialogue and the inspections represent clear and irrefutable evidence of the IRA?s commitment to a just and equitable peace settlement. The IRA leadership has honoured every commitment we have made and will continue to do so. Others should do likewise.

?We reiterate our view that the resolution of the issue of arms is a necessary step in a genuine peace process? (An Phoblacht June 7).

In politics it is never wise to conclude that a particular outcome is totally impossible, but the odds against any significant shift in the IRA?s position in the near term, let alone by July 1, are formidable. Tactically, republican leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness - both of whom retained their Westminster seats with massive, increased majorities - may speak about their anxiety at the prospect of the collapse of the institutions. But neither the Provisional Army Council on the one hand nor the Sinn F?in leadership on the other have any strategic interest in saving the power-sharing executive or the assembly. Their goal is not to shore up the devolved government of the artificial Northern Ireland statelet created by partition, but to struggle for a united Ireland in whose government SF will presumably play a central role.

Sinn F?in?s two gains - Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Tyrone West - symbolised perfectly the ?greening of the west? and the general advance on the ground since the 1997 general election. Previous results had rested on winning new nationalist forces by dint of sheer hard slog on the ground, but now SF is winning over long-standing SDLP support in considerable numbers.

United Ireland

The most exciting contest was undoubtedly in Fermanagh, where Michelle Gildernew won by just 53 votes and thus became the first woman to be elected a Sinn F?in MP since Countess Markewiecz was elected in 1918. In defeating UUP candidate James Cooper, Gildernew overturned the 13,000 majority bequeathed to him by retiring member Ken McGinnis. She told her supporters: ?Sinn F?in has won west of the Bann. We are a republican party. We are always seeking a united Ireland and our day has come? (Belfast Telegraph June 9). Predictably, Cooper blamed the DUP?s candidate, Jim Dixon, for having split the unionist vote and garnering more than 6,000 votes himself.

Sinn F?in?s growing ascendancy over the SDLP was exemplified best of all in Tyrone West, where Pat Doherty, for the last 13 years SF?s vice-president, took the seat from the UUP?s Willie Thompson. Although hitherto something of a backroom figure, Doherty, who has been publicly accused of being a senior officer in the IRA, most recently by the DUP using the immunity afforded by the assembly, grabbed the seat with a swing of more than seven percent. The defeated Thompson, who came in second place, admitted that he only won in 1997 because of a split in the nationalist vote, but that it had made no difference this time.

The SDLP adopted a high risk strategy by having Brid Rodgers stand in the constituency. Rodgers, agriculture minister in the executive, made a name for herself through her competent handling of the recent foot and mouth crisis and the SDLP obviously thought her high profile would attract support from the rural nationalist community. Be that as it may, Rodgers found herself third in the poll.

What of the immediate future in the light of these developments? On June 18, the Northern Ireland parties and the British and Irish governments are supposed to sit down and thrash out remaining differences over the Good Friday agreement. The elections in the north of Ireland will undoubtedly have led Blair and Bertie Ahern to look at things rather differently than before June 7. On the one hand, we have a DUP that can claim a mandate for its uncompromising rejectionism; and a UUP whose bitter internal divisions on the agreement look like provoking the collapse of the institutions. Clearly, in unionist eyes, only some concrete move by the IRA can defuse their hostility.

But on the other hand, you have Sinn F?in itself with an outstanding mandate, which it sees as clear proof that the nationalist community shares its strategic aspirations. And if politicians and officials from the 26 counties had been planning to put real pressure on the republican side during these negotiations, last week?s ?no? vote in the referendum on the Nice Treaty, ardently supported by Sinn F?in, should have made them think again. A general election in the south is not that far off and the taoiseach must now seriously be contemplating the prospect not of cajoling and pressurising SF, but of having to take it into a coalition government.

On the eve of the polls in the north, Gerry Adams said: ?Sinn F?in will be the story of this election.? He predicted that the party would win one more seat in Westminster and would increase its local council seats by 30%. In the event, he was right and results actually exceeded his expectations. But the DUP, in its own way, was also ?the story of this election? on the unionist side.

The ?flight from the centre?, raising increasing possibilities for polarisation, will make the next weeks and months a particularly interesting and significant period, with a great deal at stake. As yet, it is only the current form of the peace process, rather than peace itself, that is threatened, but, where the politics of the north of Ireland are concerned, there is no knowing what may happen.