Antrim cannot be allowed to upset the peace process

Can the centre hold in Northern Ireland? Supporters of the Good Friday Agreement were anxious over the prospects for David Trimble's candidate in the South Antrim by-election. Although David Burnside is no friend of the Agreement, he stuck (just) to the Ulster Unionist Party line in the campaign. However, instead of an ambiguous "Yes, but...", the voters of South Antrim opted for a full-throated "No" to the present settlement, even though it is Ireland's best hope for lasting peace.

Can the centre hold in Northern Ireland? Supporters of the Good Friday Agreement were anxious over the prospects for David Trimble's candidate in the South Antrim by-election. Although David Burnside is no friend of the Agreement, he stuck (just) to the Ulster Unionist Party line in the campaign. However, instead of an ambiguous "Yes, but...", the voters of South Antrim opted for a full-throated "No" to the present settlement, even though it is Ireland's best hope for lasting peace.

Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party has been pushed to the fringes of the arguments that matter in Northern Ireland, but the danger with that is that the DUP is now the obvious repository of a protest vote with punch. So, Billy McCrea, the hot-gospeller of the old-time religion of not giving an inch, returns to Westminster bearing a stark message. The Unionist people of Northern Ireland are not happy. They do not like the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary,prisoner releases, or Sinn Fein in government. And they think that the IRA's opening of a few of its arms dumps to inspection is an empty gesture.

All is not well on the other side of the political divide either, as the terrorist attack on the MI6 headquarters in London suggests. Dissident republicanism is not to be equated with uncompromising Unionism, which expresses itself in the ballot box rather than with a rocket launcher. But the "centre" in Northern Ireland, Mr Trimble and his slim majority of the UUP, John Hume and Martin McGuinness, are all under pressure from both extremes.

Obviously, the missile attack should not deflect the centre from sticking to its present course. Support for violence among republicans is diminishing and will continue to do so if devolved government can be shown to work. Less obviously, the South Antrim result, although it should be acknowledged, should not deflect the process. The mandate from the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 still takes precedence over a one-off by-election.

The by-election strengthens Mr Trimble's hand in talks over RUC reform, but it takes the argument no further forward. The Patten Report's blueprint for a non-sectarian police service is broadly sensible, and is the minimum required to have any chance of attracting Roman Catholic recruits in significant numbers. More important, the by-election result keeps the pressure on the IRA and Sinn Fein to do more to demonstrate that the war really is over.

There is no alternative in Northern Ireland but to press ahead. And to hope that the passage of time will wear down Unionist fears of republican intentions.

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