France 98 calms Ulster passions

The World Cup has put a dampener on campaigning for Thursday's elections, writes David McKittrick
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The Independent Online
NORTHERN IRELAND voters are approaching this Thursday's vital election to a new Belfast assembly with all the appearances of almost complete apathy and indifference. Posters are thin on the ground; debate has been lacklustre and lacked fire; canvassers report the democratic processes taking second place to the World Cup.

Paisley excites less interest than Rivaldo; Trimble trails to the skills of Italy; the talk is not of Gerry Adams but of Scotland's prospects of staying in the contest.

As anyone in Belfast will say, that is an accurate enough reflection of the campaign leading up to Thursday's election for a new institution which, most hope, will help give Northern Ireland a historic new start. It is also utterly misleading.

The lack of obvious attention does not mean the voters don't care: they are simply biding their time. The chances are that they will turn out in very large numbers on Thursday for a vote which they know could have profound effects on their future.

They are, in the meantime, giving their politicians an instructive lesson in the natural rhythms of politics. The referendum of 22 May, with its 71 per cent vote in favour of the Good Friday agreement, was such a climactic moment that they communally decided they needed a breather.

Turnout on Thursday is unlikely to reach the referendum's record 81 per cent, but it will be high. Quite a few of those who voted in May may never have turned out in the past: now the theory is that many will have caught the voting habit, and do so again.

From the point of view of those who favour the Good Friday agreement, they had better. That 71 per cent vote was a strong showing but, as the lack of celebration and euphoria showed, it has not been taken as decisive. A strong pro-agreement majority is needed for the assembly to work properly.

Even after the referendum a good many loose ends remain, and most people have a nagging feeling that one or more of them might cause the whole thing to unravel. There is still a huge amount of mistrust around and, even though the agreement is down there in black and white, there are still hotly-disputed differences on interpretation. It is a given in the nationalist community, 97 per cent of which is about to vote for John Hume's SDLP or for Sinn Fein, that the latter will be included in the new executive which will run Northern Ireland. The expectation is that the new 12-person committee will have Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness among its members.

No such settled expectation exists, however, on the Unionist side. The Good Friday agreement, as embellished by Tony Blair in various recent pledges, nearly says that IRA arms de-commissioning should begin before Sinn Fein gets into the executive.

Nearly, but not quite: the spirit of the agreement says that republicans should move in that direction, but the letter of the accord does not formally insist upon guns before seats. Gerry Adams argues that this means Sinn Fein will become part of the executive, as of right.

This is vigorously contested by most shades of Unionism. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has spent much of the past few weeks attempting to establish linkage between Sinn Fein participation and both de-commissioning and prisoner release. His main opponent, the Rev Ian Paisley, charges that he has got nowhere, and that he and Mr Blair are deceiving the voters.

All this would seem to be the ready-made stuff of a fiercely-fought campaign, but the contest has never ignited. For the referendum Mr Paisley put up a negative but spirited fight. This time, perhaps sensing that the time for outright negativity has gone, he presents his aim as being not to wreck the new assembly but to police it.

The big question is whether he and other anti-agreement Unionists will be elected to the assembly in sufficient numbers to throw a spanner in its works. That 71 per cent referendum vote conceals the fact that at least 45 per cent of Unionists voted against the accord.

The hope of pro-agreement parties is that many of those will consider that, having made their protest, the time has now come to bow to the will of the majority and vote for Trimble supporters who can make a success of the new institution.

One complication in all this is that half-a-dozen or more of Mr Trimble's candidates, while technically behind him, are actually known to oppose the agreement: some have called them "Trojan horses". His party's concern is that they might form an alliance with Paisleyites in the assembly.

But that is very much a worse-case scenario. Campaigns as flat and low- key as this are traditionally unhelpful to Mr Paisley, who seems to do best when he can generate heat and cause sparks to fly.

After the election the road ahead is strewn with all sorts of controversies, including the formation of the executive, the de-commissioning question, and how a whole new system of government can be put in place. Most immediately, however, the hope of London and Dublin is that Mr Trimble can deliver a working majority of pro-agreement parties, and in doing so maintain the momentum of the peace process.