The doorstep message is peace

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The Independent Online
An optimist will find enough in yesterday's Northern Ireland election results to keep alive hopes that another IRA ceasefire will at some stage be on the cards. A pessimist will pore over the same results and find much to support the view that the elections may have made things worse rather than better, and see little hope of progress.

The chief difference between the two views lies in the strong Sinn Fein vote and in the significance which can be read into it. That significance is highly arguable. First, the pessimistic view. Many Unionist voters have moved to the right, many of them forsaking David Trimble's Ulster Unionists for the greener, or rather more orange, pastures offered by the Rev Ian Paisley.

Mr Paisley fought the campaign on a ticket of "no negotiations with Sinn Fein." He would be prepared to sit down with John Hume's SDLP, but on current attitudes hardly anyone believes this would lead to any form of Hume-Paisley accord.

Mr Trimble, in his first election as party leader, suffered a setback, his party's share of the vote dropping almost everywhere. The irony is that he asked John Major for the election, but ended up suffering the biggest setback in it.

His Ulster Unionist party is geared up for talks, but experience has shown that when Mr Paisley does well it is reluctant to take risks, and hence move towards any agreement, with such a large and menacing rival breathing down its neck.

The narrow middle group, occupied chiefly by the Alliance party, became even narrower, squeezed as it was between the larger blocs. The SDLP pretty much held its own, though in the traditional cockpit of west Belfast Sinn Fein captured four seats.

Optimists will acknowledge that most of these are unpromising signs, but will focus on the deeper meaning of the overall Sinn Fein vote. A vote for Sinn Fein was certainly a vote for militant republicanism, and one cast while no IRA ceasefire is in effect. Yet privately no republican is interpreting the vote as a mandate for a return to violence.

This is not to say there will be a ceasefire before talks start on 10 June, or even that the IRA might not try to order a resumption.

But the message from their supporters is a paradoxically pacific one, and in effect an instruction to republican leaders to keep pushing for negotiation rather than contemplate return to war.