The Observer | Focus | About-turn


The outcome of the polls last week merely reflects the bitter divisions in Northern Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement failed to banish. Henry McDonald reports

Sunday November 30, 2003
The Observer

John Hume sang, 'We Shall Overcome'. The anthem of the American and later the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement rang out triumphantly throughout the King's Head, a pub in South Belfast directly facing the counting centre. An emotional Hume burst into song in celebration of 30 years of peaceful, democratic politics. His party, the SDLP, had just realised its goal: a historic compromise between unionism and nationalism; a power-sharing government between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast.
However, those jubilant scenes in the King's Head took place five years ago in a more optimistic, less divided atmosphere than that facing Northern Ireland this weekend. On Friday those SDLP members who ventured across the Lisburn Road from the King's Hall counting centre to the King's Head were seeking to drown their sorrows. They had just witnessed the collapse of the SDLP's vote across Northern Ireland. The party that had taken risks to bring Sinn Fein into constitutional politics by securing an IRA cease-fire was being 'rewarded' by being spurned by the Catholic electorate.

By Friday night the picture was clear: the SDLP had only won 18 seats as opposed to Sinn Fein who were returned to the Stormont Assembly with 24 members.

The result marked a 360 degree turn in northern nationalism with Sinn Fein now on top with the exact amount of seats the SDLP had in the halcyon days of the spring of 1998.

Mournfully supping Guinness in the King's Head, one of the SDLP's veteran election workers in west Belfast - where the party's former MP Dr Joe Hendron had just lost his Assembly seat - pointed to his pint. 'Maybe there should be cyanide in this,' he said tapping the glass.

He was not only in mourning for his party but also for the Good Friday Agreement, the deal made in SDLP heaven with its emphasis on shared consensus, power-sharing, consent.

The Unionist community turned on the Agreement last Wednesday, giving Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists 30 seats. David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party was returned with 27 seats, one more than when it left the Assembly, the winners were the DUP. Combining its votes with five of the Ulster Unionists who don't support the Agreement, it is mathematically impossible to get enough support in the Assembly for a cross-community consensus.

Moreover, the outcome merely reflects the bitter divisions in Northern Irish society that the agreement failed to banish. In fact the only growth industry north of the river Lagan in Belfast has been the construction of almost 20 so-called peace walls separating Protestants and Catholics on a permanent basis.

The DUP's figurehead may be Ian Paisley but its key strategist is his deputy Peter Robinson. Those close to the East Belfast MP say he plans no big moves over the next 18 months. Instead Robinson will wait until the next Westminster election in the hope that the DUP can wrestle more seats from the Ulster Unionists. In the event of the DUP holding more seats in the House of Commons with Labour on a much-reduced majority and the resurrected Tories biting at Tony Blair's heels, Robinson will seek to gain a new agreement.

Sinn Fein however will not rest during this 18-month hiatus. Tomorrow Gerry Adams meets the Irish government and will press home the need for concessions to the republican community continuing. These include the controversial issue of the IRA 'on-the-runs' being allowed to return to Northern Ireland. The on-the-runs question is a major headache for Blair. He may be tempted to grant Sinn Fein this demand to secure and fasten the IRA cease-fire. But by doing so he will provide further ammunition to the resurgent DUP who will paint the peace process as a one-way pro-nationalist concession process.

The one politician inextricably linked to the agreement, Trimble, was remarkably relaxed yesterday about his future. Listening to Radio 3's Record Review, this classical-music loving former academic was preparing for an unseemly scrap. If and when his chief internal critic, Jeffrey Donaldson, moves to have his leader ousted as head of the UUP, Trimble will fight back. He told The Observer he is not going to resign.

Trimble accepts Donaldson is about to move against him: 'Donaldson's language certainly points to a leadership challenge,' he said. 'The question is this: is he going to come over the parapet himself?'

'He (Donaldson) is going to fail because the bulk of the party are not that upset at the outcome; they were bracing themselves for something worse.'

Asked why he would fight on, Trimble replied: 'I have no choice. I am not being irresponsible like John Major or William Hague by resigning. They left their party in the lurch. I am not walking away and leaving my party to be misled. We need to have a better leadership than people like Donaldson.'

Donaldson was adamant, however, that Trimble has to go: 'The election results carry a very clear message: two out of three unionist voters voted for anti-agreement candidates, even in the leader's own constituency of upper Bann. There needs to be a change; that's what the voters want. Otherwise we will lose more seats to the DUP at Westminster.

'Trimble should do the honourable thing and step aside. We need a transitional leadership for a broader consensus.

'If he stays then the UUP will end up like the SDLP.'

Donaldson now faces a choice - he and his allies will have to call a special meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council in order to topple Trimble over the next three weeks. Even his supporters accept that Trimble might still come through and survive the vote.

The SDLP will also have to endure several weeks of painful soul searching over its future. The Observer has learnt that at least five prominent SDLP figures in Belfast city have vowed they will no longer stand on the party's ticket.

All of them are looking south to Fianna Fail. One of the five said: 'I'm a nationalist, I'm in favour of a United Ireland so why would I not want to join an All Ireland party?' The clamour for a SDLP merger with Fianna Fail will grow over the next few weeks. A number are going to make direct approaches to Bertie Ahern's party in the next few days.

It was not meant to be like this: the centre parties squeezed, the hard-line forces consolidated. The landscape from Good Friday 1998 has been radically changed. The two communities are further apart than they were five years ago, politically and physically.

Twenty-four hours before the Good Friday deal was signed Paisley looked like yesterday's man. In a media tent outside Castle buildings at Stormont, the venue where the peace negotiations were taking place, Paisley tried to hold a press conference. The DUP leader was shouted down by a group of former loyalist paramilitaries. He was driven from the platform by the baying loyalists who chanted, 'Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio'.

The image of Paisley walking away from Stormont on Holy Thursday evening was one of the defining moments of the peace process. On the surface it appeared that Paisley and Paisleyism was confined to the dustbin of history. The events of last week and the surge of support for the DUP have made nonsense of that theory. Paisley still stands as a colossus in Northern Ireland politics who blocks any new historic compromise between unionism and nationalism.

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