Blasted from both sides

The elections John Major called in Northern Ireland resulted in a victory for extremism, as Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams made the greatest gains. David McKittrick analyses the Prime Minister's great miscalculation
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"There's absolutely no doubt about it," the republican activist remarked just before the results of last week's Northern Ireland election were declared. "The August '94 ceasefire was the most popular thing we ever did in 25 years."

When the results came through he, like the rest of Sinn Fein, was stunned by the unprecedented backing the party received, a vote which seems to denote overwhelming republican approval of the last ceasefire and a heartfelt wish that there will soon be another.

The overall results of the election mean the Irish peace process has just taken yet another dramatic and unforeseen new turn. It has moved in a direction which paradoxically makes eventual peace more likely, but the prospect of agreement less so.

London, Dublin and the Northern Ireland parties are still struggling to come to grips with results which have significantly altered the landscape within both nationalism and Unionism. It shattered a number of illusions and showed up both new difficulties and new opportunities.

Most of all, and best of all, the election has severely limited the IRA's military options, making it next to impossible for the organisation to return to full-scale terrorism. But it has increased Sinn Fein's political options, greatly strengthening Gerry Adams's hand in his quest to lead republicans into politics. In the short term, the signs are that it will not produce an IRA ceasefire in time to allow Sinn Fein entry to the political talks due to open on June 10. But the vote, as a massive endorsement of the peace process, means that the chances of another cessation - hopefully a final one - within months are now very high.

The question is really not if but when. The peace process is, however, a long game, and there will be many more twists and turns lie ahead.

From the start, the whole idea of an election rested on dubious logic. One unstated purpose was an attempt by John Major and his Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, to exert a measure of control over a process which was not of their making. Once again, however, results, which they must regard as undesirable, indicate that this goal has eluded them.

One stated justification for the contest was that it would provide a mandate for the various elements seeking to take part in subsequent all- party talks. This was always slightly puzzling, since repeated results, from 10 elections in 15 years, show that party fortunes rarely fluctuate by more than a few percentage points.

But the main reason advanced for the contest was that Unionists had indicated that they would, after an election, be prepared to talk to Sinn Fein, even if no IRA arms were de-commissioned. This flexibility in Unionism is, however, now in question, partly due to a toughening of the positions of rival Unionist parties during the election campaign.

Before the election, British policy-makers believed they could ride two horses at once, and could straddle both the main theories on how progress might be made. One theory was that republicans were ready to move away from violence, and could be drawn into the political processes. Others believed there was more merit in the less dramatic path of concentrating on the middle ground, and building incrementally on it, from the centre out.

Many in government believed both approaches could be pursued simultaneously. Some, including senior ministers, had become so intellectually committed to the second theory that when the IRA cessation came along in August 1994 they had much trouble, psychologically and temperamentally, in coming to terms with it. Some never have.

One minister recently explained that it had been shown around the world that the way to resolve conflicts was to bring the centres together: once they could be induced to work together, the extremes began to crumble. This perspective helps explain why some in government would shed few tears if Sinn Fein were not represented at the June 10 talks.

The problem for adherents of this "centre-out" theory, however, is that it has been dealt a devastating blow by the election, in which the major victors were Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley. Simultaneously the centre has been whittled away. The centrist Alliance party, which could once command 14 per cent of the vote, went down to 6.5 per cent, leading to a revival of the caustic jibe that parties positioned in the middle of the road often get knocked down. None of the other parties which tried to appeal to both sides scored more than one per cent.

But even more than this, it is the state of play within Unionism that has dealt the centre-out theory such a cruel knock. Discounting the peculiar results of European contests in Northern Ireland, the major Unionist grouping, David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, collected its lowest ever share of the vote. In six previous elections the party always scored at least 29 per cent: this time it took only 24 per cent.

Mr Paisley's support, meanwhile, showed a solid increase, while a further nine per cent of Unionist votes were scattered among Robert McCartney's UK Unionists and the two fledgling parties, led by David Ervine and Gary McMichael, which have evolved from loyalist paramilitary groups. Most observers have welcomed the respectable loyalist showing as one that will encourage them into politics and away from paramilitarism.

Unionism, in other words, has ceased to be a two-party movement and has fragmented into five parts, two large and three small. Mr Trimble must be uneasily aware that, for the first time, his party does not represent a majority of Unionist voters, and that the combined votes of Mr Paisley and Mr McCartney came within 13,000 votes of his total. Mr Paisley and Mr McCartney do not harbour any desire to form some new centrist coalition with John Hume and the SDLP: nor, for that matter, does Mr Trimble.

According to the centre-out theory such intra-Unionist divisions can create opportunities for dividing the Unionist bloc, but this has not been so in the past. The experience of the Unionist fragmentation of the 1970s is that Ian Paisley, when armed with a strong vote as he is today, can exercise a strong influence over other Unionist parties. Unionist leaders who contemplated a move to moderation came to dread his anathema, and learned to stay within the fold.

The Unionist splintering arises from a mixture of personalities, policies and indeed from a range of fundamentally different views of the future. On one wing are the fledgling loyalists, who fought on a pro-talks ticket; on the other are Mr Paisley and Mr McCartney, who do not want to negotiate with Sinn Fein; and somewhere in the middle is Mr Trimble, who might be drawn into negotiation, though only under stringent conditions.

Translating this into terms of the wider population gives a snapshot of the span of opinion among Unionists generally. It means that 46 per cent of Unionists supported the Paisley-McCartney line, 11 per cent went for the pro-negotiation loyalists, and 43 per cent favoured the less clear- cut Ulster Unionist approach.

Nationalist voters, by contrast, displayed an extraordinary unanimity in favour of the peace process. John Hume and Gerry Adams, whose names will forever be linked in the expression "Hume-Adams", both received massive personal endorsements. The SDLP's overall vote dropped by a fraction, while Sinn Fein's rose to its highest-ever level: one voter in seven supported the republicans.

Many may consider this a cause for deep depression, and indeed it may be wondered how votes for a party closely identified with the IRA can possibly be construed as support for peace. The answer lies in the way Sinn Fein fought the campaign, emphasising peace at every turn, and in the message republican canvassers received on the doorsteps.

That message was one of huge support for the last peace process, and for the idea that a new one should now be constructed. The regular Sinn Fein vote turned out but so too did many people who had never bothered voting before, or who had refrained from supporting the party while IRA violence was at its height.

When the bomb that killed two people and ended the ceasefire went off in Docklands in February, it seemed the IRA might be intent on a return to full-scale war. But the general republican reaction to that bomb, expressed in the first instance privately and now publicly in this election result, amounts to an impressive utilisation of what used to be called "people power".

The general republican community, which for so many years either tolerated or actively supported the IRA campaign, has now told the army council that those days are over. One canny west Belfast woman summed it up: "It was a statement of trust in Adams, a vote of confidence in how he handled the peace process. It was also two fingers to the Brits for messing it all up. It was a vote against a return to war. There would be horror if the IRA started up again without a very, very good reason. Something pretty horrendous would have to happen to justify it."

One of the key points at issue between those who favour the peace process and those who prefer the centre-out approach is whether Unionism or republicanism is the more flexible. The peace process was posited on a belief that republicans were more ready for movement, a belief that was apparently vindicated by the August 1994 ceasefire, but was then dented by its collapse. This election has been damaging for the centre-out theory, however, in that it produced no sign that Unionism is ripe for reaching agreement with nationalists.

Unionist Ulster may be uncertain of the way ahead, but nationalist Ireland is united in concluding that any talks which do not include Sinn Fein are, in the words of one Irish government adviser, not worth a penny candle. Nationalists have, in other words, discarded the centre-out approach as futile.

But the Sinn Fein mandate was not a directive to pursue peace at any price: rather it has given the republicans space and eased the pressure on them. It has curtailed their military options but increased their political options.

They appear to have decided to observe the talks and assure themselves that the discussions amount to real negotiations before opting to join them. They will have the luxury of watching how London, Dublin and the Unionists conduct themselves before making a judgement on whether the game is worth the candle.

David Trimble, who asked for the contest, has been weakened by it. The British government, which called the election, has had to watch in dismay as the centre contracted and the extremes profited. Gerry Adams, who had declared himself implacably opposed to the election, has ironically emerged as its chief beneficiary.

And the peace process, which has so often seemed defunct, somehow moves mysteriously on, in a way which no one really fully understands, full of surprises, keeping hope alive that a lasting peace can yet be attained.