Ballots replace bullets on Ulster's long path to peace

The struggle for supremacy now takes place on the political battlefield but the process is still beset with uncertainty
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The Independent Online

In Northern Ireland, the television news pictures from abroad of rubble-strewn, blood-stained streets can produce a shudder of horror but also a slightly shameful sense of relief that such things now happen in places such as Turkey and the Middle East, and no longer in Belfast or Omagh.

Belfast was where the car bomb was first deployed by the IRA, bringing a fearful new dimension to terrorism. Small republican splinter groups still try to use the weapon, but are generally intercepted and arrested by the security forces.

Nationalists and Unionists are still at loggerheads with each other, yet the struggle between them is now conducted on the political battlefield rather than on the streets. Perhaps the most important fact about today's elections to the Belfast Assembly is that people are not dying on the streets as once they did. Former IRA people no longer deal in detonators and booby traps; now their talk is of turn-out, quotas and transfers.

The Northern Ireland peace process is, in other words, in a mature phase. Violent men are still out there, and so are hundreds of guns, but this is a political phase and this election not a matter of life or death.

The most recent large-scale atrocity, the Real IRA's Omagh bombing, which claimed 29 lives, took place five years ago. Terrible as it was, it proved one thing: that the peace process had even then reached the point where it would not be derailed by such at attack.

Today, the process is, as ever, beset with uncertainty, since no one can predict with any certainty what the election will produce. Some results might bring rapid movement; some might cause it to seize up for months or even years. But few believe any of the likely outcomes will cause the process to collapse, for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement looks bound to remain the template for future political activity.

None the less, the election could change the political landscape; it will certainly decide for Unionism and for nationalism. It will also determine whether Northern Ireland will get back devolved government, or whether the Assembly will remain suspended and inoperative.

In the previous Assembly elections, in 1998, four large parties won 90 of the 108 seats. They are David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, Mark Durkan's Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein. The four all scored between 18 and 22 per cent of the first-preference votes in the proportional representation contest. The signs are that they will mop up even more this time, emphasising thisfour-horse race. Last time round, the UUP and SDLP, as the larger parties on the Unionist and nationalist sides, took the posts of first and deputy first ministers. They also took the bulk of the 10 departmental ministries.

The least disruptive and least dramatic result would be a repeat of this pattern. It would not mean an automatic return to devolution, since the UUP and Sinn Fein would first have to finalise a deal on IRA weaponry and activity.

This time the DUP is trying to displace the UUP as the voice of Unionism, while Sinn Fein is aiming to overtake the SDLP. If both succeed, this will be a drastic change, bringing two new parties to the fore. And a restored government would theoretically have Peter Robinson, Mr Paisley's deputy, as first minister, with Martin McGuinness as his deputy. In practice, the collective political mind boggles at this, in the short term at least. There are some optimists who believe that such a deal might be done at some stage, but, for the moment, the rest of the body politic is set against the DUP. All three of the other parties, as well as Tony Blair, believe a DUP victory would both complicate and delay the chances of a new deal. Another possible result is that Mr Trimble gets more seats than Mr Paisley, but that his party members in the new Assembly would include a dissident faction headed by Jeffrey Donaldson. If a Paisley-Donaldson alliance outnumbers the Trimble loyalists, then there could be a deadlock.

Other conceivable outcomes include Mr Trimble and Sinn Fein coming out on top, or Mr Paisley and the SDLP emerging as winners. Much of this is uncharted territory, though the consensus is that the republicans and the Paisleyites are going to make gains.

Northern Ireland is a better place than it was, with a much-reduced death rate and a much more relaxed society. The paradox is why, in such circumstances, its voters should be shifting towards the two most extreme of the big four parties.

Part of the answer is that attitudinal change is a long, slow process, while another is that the extremists are not as extreme as they once were. Sinn Fein and the DUP have also been rewarded for their perceived prowess at negotiation. Sinn Fein, for example, was once little more than a cheerleading adjunct of the IRA, offering propaganda support for it "armed struggle". Now it is a fully fledged and much- expanded political party bidding for outright leadership of northern nationalism.

As for the IRA, it made its third act of arms decommissioning earlier this year, while, in a ground-breaking speech, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, seemed to signal, in republican terms, that its war was over. Sinn Fein is now the party of jaw-jaw rather than war-war, with Mr McGuinness holding the formal title of chief negotiator. He and Mr Adams are frequent visitors to No 10.

A few years ago, the question of whether the republicans were genuine on negotiations was a hotly debated topic. Today, a very similar debate is going on about the DUP. Yes, it is more extreme than the UUP, but is it too in the throes of change? The party says it will maintain its stance of not speaking to Sinn Fein but it projects a striking new enthusiasm for talks in general.

The DUP line is no longer that there should be no negotiation; rather, the line is that the party would be much better at negotiation than Mr Trimble has been. Some view this as little more than a device to tempt floating Unionist voters away from the Trimble camp, while others believe it could be of immense importance.

Mr Trimble has a reasonable working relationship today with Mr Adams, but it will be remembered that he never spoke to Sinn Fein until late in 1998, well after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed.

The optimistic view is that the DUP may now be starting out on a similar journey to that undertaken in different ways by Mr Trimble and by Sinn Fein. Both have travelled on a path taking them from non- negotiable positions to unfamiliar new realms of give and take. Even if the DUP is doing this, however, nobody believes it will happen quickly. The sense is that any Sinn Fein-DUP deal is likely to take years rather than months. Many believe it will not happen until Mr Paisley has left active politics.

Such delay is likely to increase the sense of exasperation that much of the world feels about the Northern Ireland peace process; a process that has delivered much - so much, in fact, that not even another Omagh is capable of reversing the process - but has yet to provide a stable political setting. The fact that the killing is being steadily removed from the equation means that there is time in hand, even in the event of a difficult election result. Change is discernible even if it is glacially slow.

As George Mitchell, the US politician who chaired peace talks in Belfast, once observed of the problem: "This has been centuries in the making; it will be years in the changing."