There is a dangerous new spirit of intolerance in Northern Ireland

Click to follow

The local election results in Northern Ireland are now complete ­ and have proved as disastrous for David Trimble, the First Minister, as were the more speedily counted general election results. His Ulster Unionists lost 30 seats in the local elections, after seeing a net loss of three seats at Westminster; Ian Paisley's intransigent Democratic Unionists made substantial gains.

Mr Trimble has been through many crises before, and survived. As with Hilaire Belloc's Matilda ("Every time she shouted 'Fire!' /They only answered: 'Little liar!'"), it is tempting to believe that this latest crisis is somehow not quite real. But, as with Matilda, that belief could prove a fatal delusion.

Mr Trimble is now under strong attack from radical elements in his own party, as well as from the Democratic Unionists. He has vowed to resign on 1 July unless the IRA has by that date made a move on the decommissioning of weapons. His end may come even sooner than that. At the annual meeting next week of his party's ruling council, Mr Trimble could be unseated by opponents within his own party. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness has not seemed eager to help Mr Trimble off his hook. He dismissed yesterday the suggestion that the IRA might be ready to seal up an arms dump as "mischievous". Not half as mischievous, some might say, as standing with folded arms on the sidelines, while Mr Trimble is kicked out by his enemies.

The new spirit of intolerance within Mr Trimble's party ­ which is nourished by the IRA's failure to make even minimal concessions ­ and the successes of Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists mean the Good Friday Agreement is close to being torn up. It is a terrifying prospect: if the agreement is jettisoned, the revival of the delicate peace process will, in practical terms, seem almost unthinkable. Mr McGuinness says airily that "the problems can be resolved". Not if nobody budges, they can't.

On the nationalist side, too, the news has not been rosy. John Hume's mainly Catholic SDLP, which helped kickstart the peace process, suffered badly at the hands of Sinn Fein, which still too often seems to regard cynical manoeuvring as the the only way to conduct politics. The SDLP is an ageing party (the average age of its three remaining MPs is 65), which makes it less attractive to the voters. None the less, the squeezing out of the SDLP, a bridge between the two communities, is worrying.

Despite everything, there are still faint glimmers of hope. Even anti-agreement Unionists sometimes seem ready to talk in the language of those who have signed up for the Good Friday Agreement. The existence of the joint Assembly is now implicitly accepted ­ even by the diehards. It is a well-tried rule of political life that hardliners sometimes have greater manoeuvring room than those who are accused of an excess of liberalism (the once unbending Mr Trimble himself has benefited from this principle in the past). But the utter refusal of the hardline Unionists to compromise can hardly be overstated.

If inflexibility remains on the agenda, the knock-on effects will be disastrous for Catholics and Protestants alike. The murder of innocent people will again become commonplace. That is a point which Sinn Fein and its friends, at least as much as Mr Trimble's Unionist critics, urgently need to reflect on.

Sinn Fein, which also did well in the south, has benefited electorally from coming much closer to the democratic mainstream. Now, however, that mainstream is itself imperilled. The belief that every struggle has winners and losers can lead to an outcome where losers are all.