Careful planning behind changes to political landscape

When the smoke has cleared, most supporters of the Good Friday Agreement may come to regard the Northern Ireland election result as good for the peace process but for the moment at least, bad for the political process.

The spectre of war has been virtually banished from the land because of the progress made by the republican movement. Sinn Fein has turned itself into the Rolls-Royce of political parties, each election bringing it fresh gains.

These advances do not come by accident, but are due to a political machine stretching from Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness down to the people who provide the Irish stew to the green army of republican election workers.

The combination of political skills, a sense of mission, and an unusual degree of commitment to every last mundane detail brought Sinn Fein the second largest vote in the election, eclipsing the SDLP.

They were only 2.2 percentage points behind the Democratic Unionists, a performance which indicates they can, with some confidence, expect to take seats from the SDLP in the next Westminster election.

With SDLP support likely to slide further, a continuing swing to the republicans means they are in with a chance of eventually becoming the biggest party in Northern Ireland. They are also electorally on the move south of the border. As a result, the idea of a return to the republican war is just about inconceivable. Why should the fastest-growing party in Ireland resort to violence? Who needs Armalites when the ballot box delivers so spectacularly? There is, however, hardly a single Unionist who welcomes all this as underpinning the peace process, which is why they are voting in such large numbers for the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party.

The concept that embedding republicans in politics might be a good thing has not taken root with Protestant voters. Instead, the prevailing sentiment among the grass roots is: "The other side gets everything, we get nothing."

The Democratic Unionists have reaped a harvest of votes by successfully reflecting this deeply held sentiment. Mr Paisley might not, as he roars bulging-eyed at reporters, seem a particularly subtle performer, but his party ran a cleverly calculated campaign.

On the one hand it tapped into the old tribalism as effectively as ever, hoovering up the votes of the hardliners and the bitter bigots. But on another level it challenged David Trimble on his own terms, portraying him as a rotten negotiator and claiming it could do better.

The DUP has never been regarded as a party of negotiation, and Mr Paisley himself is an unlikely advocate of compromise and the doing of deals.

But his party has a strong second tier, led by the MPs Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, who in the last Assembly were regarded as very able ministers. Their performance has given the DUP a second string to its bow so that its repertoire now extends beyond anti-Catholicism to obvious administrative talents.

During the years when Mr Trimble has been attempting to modernise Unionism as a whole, Mr Robinson, Mr Dodds and a bevy of young apparatchiks have been quietly modernising the DUP. This week they received their electoral reward. But their victory has caused deep dismay to just about everyone else involved in the peace and political processes, since most other participants wanted Mr Trimble to remain as the primary voice of Unionism.

His electoral performance was not disastrous: his party's percentages did not sag badly, though the biggest personal vote went to his principal internal opponent, Jeffrey Donaldson.But Mr Donaldson started from a low base, having lost ground in almost every previous election.

Perhaps the most immediate issue now is whether a push is mounted to overthrow Mr Trimble. If he goes, his most likely successor is Mr Donaldson, who is anti-Agreement.

Even if Mr Trimble survives, the election has emphatically demonstrated what was already obvious: that a clear majority of Protestants is disillusioned with the Good Friday Agreement, and with Mr Trimble.

Next week the Government will send out search parties to reconnoitre the new political landscape and report back on the prospects for progress. There will be no going back to war, but for the foreseeable future there will be no going back to devolution either.

The two big groupings are no longer the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, the parties of the centre. They have now been displaced by Sinn Fein and the DUP. Sinn Fein's primacy had been predicted often enough that it produced little or no sense of shock. The republican approach will be to move the Agreement on and to proclaim a readiness to do business with the DUP.

The DUP will not talk directly to Sinn Fein - even posing the question produced the Paisley roar - but opinions differ sharply on what it might eventually do.

Mr Paisley has been a wrecker all his life, so the idea he could reach a deal with republicans, even at one remove, is to many quite amazing. But then many amazing things have happened during the decade or so of the peace process. The DUP wants devolution and, some observers argue, it is smart enough to know that without Sinn Fein there will be no devolution. Therefore, the theory runs, the party's modernisers will find some cunning way of clinching an arms-length deal.

While the DUP would ideally like wholesale re-negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement, everyone else insists that is not going to happen. There is, however, interesting ground to explore.

The next few months will be dedicated to establishing whether the party will sit tight, or whether, perhaps under the camouflage of further rhetorical roaring, it will adopt a pragmatic approach which might deliver a new form of accord.

The key players

DAVID TRIMBLE

After eight years as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble notched up a good personal vote andhis party support held up. But the surge in support for the Democratic Unionists has dealt a blow to the prestige of the UUP, who for decades have invariably been Northern Ireland's largest political group. Insult was added to injury when the UUP was overtaken, in first preference votes, by Sinn Fein. Mr Trimble almost clinched a deal with Gerry Adams before the election; after this setback, the question iswhether he will remain chief negotiator.

CONOR MURPHY

Though he is not well-known outside Northern Ireland, Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein is one of the second-rank of republican representatives being groomed for political stardom. From the republican heartland of south Armagh, his performance in the Assembly contest there means he is favourite to take the Westminster seat in the next general election when the SDLP's Seamus Mallon retires. He will be one of an expanded Sinn Fein Assembly team which hopes to be in negotiations in the new year, although the Rev Ian Paisley says his party will not talk directly to republicans.

IAN PAISLEY

The 77-year-old warhorse, who has for decades led the Democratic Unionist party and his Free Presbyterian church, is achieving his ambition of matching the support of the Ulster Unionist Party. Attention will focus on whether the DUP will continue to oppose compromise deals, or follow a more pragmatic approach. In the last Assembly, DUP MPs Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds refused to attend cabinet meetings with Sinn Fein. The DUP could probably block any new agreement, but in doing so it would prevent the restoration of devolution, which it favours.

MARK DURKAN

Once regarded as the brightest backroom boy of Northern Irish politics, Mark Durkan has failed to shine since taking over the leadership of the SDLP from John Hume. For decades the principal voice of northern nationalism, the party may have been a victim of its own success. It has gone a long way to achieving its goals of an IRA ceasefire, a Belfast Assembly and new north-south institutions. But in recent years it has been sidelined as London, Dublin and David Trimble concentrated on doing business with Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein.

DAVID ERVINE

The former loyalist prisoner had a narrow squeak in his east Belfast seat, but was finally elected with the benefit of transfer votes. The Progressive Unionist Party leader, who has made contacts all over the world, acts as spokesman for one for the major loyalist paramilitary groups. Several years ago it was speculated that he might help to build a party which could grow into a Protestant equivalent of Sinn Fein, providing a platform for loyalist organisations. But although the PUP exists in loyalist Belfast, the party's only other Assembly member lost his seat.

JEFFREY DONALDSON

The rebel Unionist MP is weighing up his chances of taking over as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in the wake of the election. He has already called on Mr Trimble to consider his position. Mr Donaldson received a huge personal vote in Lagan Valley, emphasising his position as the most prominent contender. In the new Assembly he and at least two other new members will oppose Mr Trimble and the Good Friday Agreement. Their presence ensures Mr Trimble will be unable to marshal the votes needed to become leader of the Unionist bloc.

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