How can Ulster's peace process be salvaged now?

Trimble's defeat by the narrowest of margins leaves the Government desperately looking for ways to avoid fresh elections

David McKittrick@IndyVoices
Saturday 03 November 2001 01:00

The Irish peace process has always been a rollercoaster ride but rarely has such a sense of breakthrough been followed so rapidly by the advent of a serious and destabilising setback.

The IRA's decision to decommission last month was hailed internationally as a historic milestone, but yesterday's defeat for David Trimble in the Belfast Assembly has caused an emergency.

The British Government went into overdrive as it sought ways of rescuing the process from the deadlock that had left the Reverend Ian Paisley and its other opponents jubilant.

Tonight at midnight is the Government's deadline for action, since the system can no longer legally function in the absence of a First Minister. The options are to call fresh Assembly elections, or to suspend everything, either for a few days or for longer.

Nearly everyone wants to avoid new elections on the basis that they would almost certainly make the problem much worse. The expectation is that Sinn Fein and Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists, who have done well in recent elections, would make further gains.

The subsequent nightmare scenario is that these two might even emerge as the strongest parties, which would mean that those in line for the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.

Even if this did not occur, there is a strong possibility that Mr Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party would continue to slip in the polls. If he returns to the Assembly with depleted party representation he would probably once again fail to be elected.

The election would thus have landed the process in even deeper trouble, rather than rescuing it. With no First Minister available, the deadlocked Assembly might have to be suspended, possibly indefinitely.

It is this dismal prospect that explains why almost everyone involved in the process wants to avoid an election and would rather have another try at getting Mr Trimble elected.

He did, after all, only just fail yesterday, gaining the support of 70.6 per cent of Assembly members. But he also needed a majority of Unionist Assembly members, and managed only 49.2 per cent. Attention is therefore focused on how his tantalisingly small 0.8 point shortfall might be made up.

The quickest and potentially easiest short-cut to doing this is to ask the middle-ground Alliance party members to declare themselves Unionists for a re-run of the vote. For the purposes of the elaborate voting system, each Assembly member is required upon election to designate themselves as Unionist, nationalist or other.

The Alliance party has always strongly resisted being classed as either Unionist or nationalist. If its five members declared themselves Unionists for a day, the peace process might be rescued.

Even if this worked, however, it would certainly damage the credibility of the process, allowing Mr Paisley to claim that Mr Trimble can reach office only with the help of essentially fake Unionist votes.

If the Alliance party refuses, then politically drastic measures may have to be called for. The requirement that a First Minister needs the votes of a majority of both Unionist and nationalist Assembly members is in the Good Friday Agreement and has been enshrined in legislation. Changing this would mean rushing an amendment through Westminster, perhaps to the effect that only 40 per cent of each would be sufficient. Again, Mr Paisley would have a field day; again, the credibility of the process would come in for a battering.

Clearly none of the above is an attractive proposition. The problem is that the electoral route, the only obvious alternative, might bring the whole process grinding to a halt. The likelihood is thus that some particularly fancy footwork will be needed to keep it going.

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