Now it's Blair's chance for peace in Ireland

The increased vote for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland dismayed some observers, but there are growing pressures on all factions to get round the table
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The road to peace in Ireland remains strewn with obstacles and difficulties. But Labour's election victory may well have increased the chances of a revived peace process and another IRA ceasefire. Labour's success has not wrought the same overnight transformation in Northern Ireland as it has in London, but there are, none the less, grounds for hoping it makes peace more likely. Things may not have changed utterly, but they have changed.

When Tony Blair meets John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, today in London they will be looking at the familiar problems but also figuring how best to exploit what could well be a new window of opportunity.

The headline news in the election was that Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, through its two leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, had captured two of the 18 Northern Ireland seats. They will go to London to demand political recognition based on their 16 per cent share of the vote, a new record for Sinn Fein. There will doubtless be unseemly, though highly newsworthy, scenes when they arrive to demand entry to the Commons, and whatever happens a Sinn Fein office is to be opened in London. Sinn Fein rules mean that the two men cannot take their seats in the chamber of the House of Commons, but they will be pressing for use of the full facilities due to MPs. It remains to be seen how Parliament will deal with their demands.

Behind the headlines lie intriguing patterns which, taken together, may make eventual peace more likely. To begin with, nationalism - the nationalist vote, which is to say the combined vote for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein - is increasing all the time. A decade and a half ago it was less than one-third of the total, but it has now reached 40 per cent. The basic landscape of Northern Ireland's demographic make-up is changing: numerically, nationalism is on the move.

The general assumption is that because the Sinn Fein vote rose, the SDLP vote fell. But this was not the case. The SDLP lost one of its four seats but its vote (apart from the anomalous European contests) was actually its biggest ever. This seems partly to be due to the increase in the Catholic population and partly to an increased nationalist turn-out.

The fact that Sinn Fein amassed 126,000 votes at a time when the IRA had ended its ceasefire and returned to terrorism is on the face of it a cause of dismay, but is worthy of closer examination. The Sinn Fein vote has a number of components. The largest is the traditional republican vote, which in 10 elections from the early 1980s to the early 1990s stayed steady at an average of 11 per cent.

But with last year's contest for seats in the Northern Ireland forum, and now in the election just past, the Sinn Fein vote rose to 15 and then 16 per cent. One element this time was a sheer tribal vote, particularly in Mid-Ulster, where nationalist determination to eject the Democratic Unionist Rev William McCrea, one of Ian Paisley's most vituperative lieutenants, took precedence over all other considerations.

Another component is a new-found republican ability to mobilise previous non-voters, and in particular younger voters, a group other parties have trouble reaching. Many younger people are not only voting but working for Sinn Fein. One of Martin McGuinness's key election workers, for example, was Paul Henry, who at 27 is studying for an advanced diploma in management for the community and voluntary sector. According to Henry: "In recent times we are getting a large number of graduates among our cumainn (branch) membership. It's young people seeing education as power."

Another factor behind the Sinn Fein increase was a straight peace vote - some thousands of voters supporting them in the hope of encouraging them along a political and non-violent path. A few of these are natural SDLP supporters, while rather more are non-violent republicans previously alienated by IRA violence but who now accept the bona fides of Adams and McGuinness.

The republicans fought the election on a platform of both war and peace. In Belfast, Sinn Fein continued to appropriate the word "peace", plastering it all over their election literature while simultaneously the IRA in Britain was choking up the transport systems with bomb threats.

This twin-track approach may have been an electoral attempt to unite doves and hawks: no one knows enough about the inner workings of the collective republican brain to say for sure. One thing, however, is certain enough: there is a clear consensus in the broader republican family that the "armed struggle" has almost run its course.

That feeling was evident during the 1994-96 ceasefire and, if anything, has grown since then. Scarcely anyone voting for Sinn Fein did so to urge the IRA to fight on indefinitely. Rather, the overwhelming sense is that the IRA's role is to secure Sinn Fein's entry into talks on the most advantageous terms possible.

The breakdown of the last ceasefire has persuaded many in Britain, the Republic and within Unionism that all the talk of peace was sheer hypocrisy, and that Adams and his associates were either insincere or unable to deliver in the face of IRA hardliners. The most telling argument against this is that if Sinn Fein have been simply deceiving and cheating, they have successfully deceived and cheated their own supporters. In doing so, they have imbued their own community with a belief that an indefinite terrorist campaign is fruitless, and in doing so they have seriously weakened the capacity of the IRA to maintain its long war of shootings and bombings.

There have been so many false dawns about new ceasefires, that it might be said that everyone is suffering from expectation fatigue. Yet within republicanism itself the expectation of new peace moves is so strong that it is coming close to imposing an imperative on the IRA. Undue delay would also increase the growing sense of exasperation with the republicans which is already very visible in both the Irish Republic and the United States.

Republican supporters are, it hardly needs saying, both highly politicised and highly tolerant of the use of violence. But the tacit understanding now is that the further use of violence should be aimed at getting to the conference table rather than resuming an interminable and very obviously unwinnable war.

The IRA could not ignore this sentiment for ever, but the political diary for the next few months is fairly crowded, and few would be surprised if no new ceasefire arrived before the autumn. According to one republican activist: "We contested the election on a new opportunity for peace but it's not peace at any price, it's peace at an honourable price. Our voters understand that."

Northern Ireland local council elections take place later this month, followed almost certainly by a general election in the republic. Early July brings the symbolic Drumcree march, with the possibility of a re- run of last year's bitter confrontations. Here there is always the chance that more acts of IRA violence will further sour the atmosphere. There are, in other words, many points at which the peace train could be derailed.

The election has also brought important changes on the Unionist side. In last year's forum election Paisley was, to coin a phrase, in the ascendancy. But now his loss of William McCrea, coupled with the success of David Trimble's rival Unionist party in picking up another seat, means that in terms of Commons seats Trimble has advanced from 9-3 to 10-2.

Locally his party has pulled ahead of Paisley, but it too has to come to terms with the fact that it has lost its previously pivotal position at Westminster. In his last year in office, and with a vanishing majority, John Major delivered a series of concessions to Trimble. Those days are gone.

From now on it will not be Trimble pressurising the Government, but the Government pressuring Trimble. The multi-party political talks, which dragged on so unproductively for so many months, are due to resume in Belfast on 3 June, and when they do the Ulster Unionists will come under heavy pressure to move to break the logjam.

The argument will be that with Paisley's fortunes in apparent decline, Trimble can afford to be more adventurous. Of course, then there is Drumcree a month later, when no one really knows what will happen. There will be uncertainty as to whether another IRA ceasefire is in the offing, and much debate on whether any new end to the violence is for real.

Dealing with all this will provide a crucial test of Trimble's leadership. If, for example, he can establish some moral authority then Unionism would be well placed to make a whole new start; but if Drumcree is another fiasco, Unionism could well lose out.

Labour's gigantic majority means that Tony Blair and Marjorie Mowlam, his Northern Ireland Secretary, assume responsibility for Northern Ireland with both great power and great moral authority. In practical terms Mowlam is bound, like Peter Brooke and Sir Patrick Mayhew before her, to begin by pursuing an approach with three facets.

One will be crisis-management, most immediately in the run-up to Drumcree and also in coping with any serious outbreaks of violence from either the IRA or the loyalists. The second will be in working the inter-party talks, to see whether she can produce movement which eluded Mayhew. The third will be in exploring a new peace process with the republicans, to see whether another ceasefire is possible.

Given this, Gerry Adams and David Trimble must presently be musing, in their very different ways, on pretty much the same question: whether this is the time to make a move which will seize the initiative for their party and convince Labour that they are the side to concentrate on.

The three elements are all intertwined and will impact on each other. A pessimist can quite easily sketch out a scenario in which a bad Drumcree, continuing deadlock in the talks, an IRA atrocity and loyalist retaliation lead to the virtual collapse of hope. An optimist can point to the new possibilities created by the election: a strong government which skilfully manages Drumcree, an emboldened Trimble and a new IRA ceasefire.

Either scenario is possible, but the very fact that a path for improvement exists will be enough to give fresh heart to those who, of late, have scarcely dared hope that peace was still possible.