Prayers for peace have been answered

Ireland has spoken. David McKittrick takes stock of a momentous shift in the political landscape
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IT WILL take a while to sink in just how profoundly the political landscape has changedin a province more accustomed to clinging on to the past than embracing the future.

But the peace process marches triumphantly on, bringing huge changes and sweeping nearly all, before it. Repeatedly it's been confronted by seemingly impassable obstacles and again and again they have melted away.

In the old days we would have been stuck at the first obstacle for years , but these days historic, momentous and unprecedented events come along every few months. The pace of such change is breathtaking, and unlikely to lessen.

It seems there is a near-magical ingredient in the air, paving the way psychologically for the steady stream of political events.

The desire for peace has always been there but this is something different: an idea which first invades the intellect, then the imagination, then attitude and then later behaviour. It began when a seed of hope grew through the layers of despair and disillusion, implanting the sense that with effort an exit route could be found from the Troubles.

Many thought there would be no IRA ceasefire in 1994, no second ceasefire in 1997, no round-table talks involving Unionists and Sinn Fein last autumn, no Good Friday agreement. One of the features of the peace process is that there are many moments when it looks as though it's not going to make it; but another feature is that it always does.

The process left its conjuring trick rather late this time. The appearance of the IRA Balcombe Street gang together with a strong showing by the Paisleyite "No" campaign, drained away votes from the "Yes" camp.

At that point the referendum looked doomed to produce a deadlock, with commentators and participants speculating that the Yes vote would not be enough for the process to proceed. Pro-agreement people were, as they say in Belfast, sweatin' bricks.

On 15 May , a week before polling day, a government source was saying: "It's looking awful, we're losing votes by the day. It's really bad news. The worst of all scenarios is a Yes vote with about 55 or 60 per cent." But in the final stages the efforts of Tony Blair and David Trimble paid off, producing a late swing as Protestants stifled their doubts and joined the peace train.

For perfection, supporters of the agreement could have wished for a few more percentage points: 75 per cent would have had such a ring to it, bringing a sense that for once and for all the No people had been banished.

But it didn't turn out that way, the 29 per cent no vote showing that Unionists split almost down the middle. Analysts will wrangle over where exactly the fault-line was, and whether a majority of Protestants voted for or against. The best guess seems to be that there was a slender pro-accord majority.

But the 71 per cent figure leaves Paisley free to make the claim, which many doubt but statistically no one can definitely disprove, that most Protestants voted No.

Against this assertion, however, can be placed the certainties that the accord has the wholehearted support of most nationalists north and south, of the Clinton administration and the world in general. It also enjoys the backing of all major political parties in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Britain with the sole exception of the Democratic Unionists. The very title of the party, will be of little help for Ian Paisley in arguing that the 71 per cent lacks real authority.

But not all No voters were Paisleyites: a good few voted against not just because they don't like Catholics but because they could not bring themselves to vote for what the agreement proposes, essentially a whole new Northern Ireland.

It is statistically clear that a majority of David Trimble's party followed him into the Yes lobby. But at the same time that 29 per cent No vote is large enough to show that not everyone has signed up for his New Unionism.

The immediate significance of this lies in the fact that elections to the new assembly to be established under the agreement take place in just one month, on 25 June. A tussle for control of party mechanisms is about to take place as Mr Trimble tries to ensure that his party's assembly nominees are not opponents of the accord who, once elected, would side with Mr Paisley.

The spotlight may now swing back to the republican movement, which has been relatively neglected in recent weeks as the debate within Unionism captured the media's attention.

Most of those who read the agreement conclude that while it clearly stresses the need for assembly parties to leave violence behind, it does not formally require the actual de-commissioning of IRA weaponry before Sinn Fein could enter a new government. Mr Trimble tried very hard to get Mr Blair to insert this pre-condition, but he failed.

Pressure is now coming on the republicans to recognise the importance of the referendum watershed by some token act of de-commissioning, or alternatively making some declaration to the effect that the IRA's war is over. It certainly seems to be over in the minds of Sinn Fein's leaders, but whether they will actually say so publicly is another matter.

Then there is the marching season, when anti-agreement elements in the Orange Order and elsewhere may attempt to force confrontations, particularly at Drumcree, with the aim of discomfiting the Trimble camp. Careful management will be needed, but mention of Drumcree serves to illustrate how far things have moved in the past few years.

It was in July 1995 that David Trimble clasped hands with Ian Paisley to celebrate the Orange success in getting that year's march through. That identification with the hardline approach led his party to elect him as leader a few months later.

This week his handshake was with John Hume, signifying that he has come to believe that Unionism's future is better safeguarded through a partnership with nationalism rather than by assertions of Orange supremacy.

He has yet to persuade all Unionists to follow him along this uncharted new path, but the referendum vote has demonstrated that a large proportion of Unionists have opted for new departures. In doing so they have altered the course of Northern Ireland's history.