Northern ireland peace destabilised
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Paisley win gives Northern Ireland peace deal jitters
By ANNE McHARDY
BELFAST - The British and Irish governments were locked in furious negotiations throughout the weekend to try to rescue the Northern Ireland peace process.
The fragile road to peace has been seriously destabilised by the victory of the Rev Ian Paisley and his hardline, anti-peace agreement Democratic Unionist Party at the polls last week.
The size of Paisley's vote means Northern Ireland is unlikely to have a return to a devolved local power-sharing administration for up to 10 years, on some estimates.
Paisley's party increased its number of virtual assembly seats from 20 to 30; the pro-Good Friday Agreement unionist party, the UUP, led by David Trimble, took its seats from 26 to 27, but still is seen as having been defeated because it was overtaken in seat numbers by Paisley.
He had taken seats from the smaller Unionist parties, which had links with Loyalist paramilitary groups but most of which, ironically, were pro-agreement.
On the Catholic side, the constitutional Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party was pushed into fourth place by Sinn Fein, which has links to the IRA, but which has renounced violence.
At the last assembly election in 1999 Sinn Fein had 18 to the SDLP's 24 and the numbers are now reversed.
The eclipsing of the SDLP - which was formerly led by John Hume, who five years ago jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Trimble - is seen as partly the fault of its failure to move beyond the peace process and partly the fact that Hume, who retired for health reasons, had for 25 years refused to allow a strong and more publicly charismatic candidate to emerge as leader.
The person he groomed for the place, Mark Durkan, is personally charming but politically lacking in vitality.
The irony of his lack of electoral support is that he was an important joint negotiator, with Hume and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, of the original IRA ceasefires in 1993 and 1996 that ended the previous 30 years of violence and led to the agreement.
In the attempt last month to re-establish the assembly that was created under the Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish governments negotiated with Adams and Trimble, but excluded Durkan from the talks. That made him seem irrelevant to voters, and is seen as another reason for the SDLP's decline.
Because Sinn Fein is pro-agreement, Catholic voters saw the party as the strongest negotiator - but the Sinn Fein links with the IRA frightened Protestants.
The fact that Paisley's party now has the largest number of seats - which guarantees the party holding them the right to provide the First Minister in any power-sharing executive established from assembly members - means the assembly will not be recalled.
The governments do not want Paisley in power since he will refuse to share office with Sinn Fein. Paisley refuses to hold any talks or conduct any political business with Sinn Fein.
The present voting returns would make Paisley First Minister and someone chosen by Sinn Fein - probably that party's deputy leader, Martin McGuiness - deputy First Minister. McGuiness' admission that he was commander of the IRA in Derry in the 1970s has terrified even many pro-agreement Unionists.
They cannot see either Adams or McGuiness as the urbane peacemakers they now portray themselves as, only as men with links to the IRA.
McGuiness appeared during the election run-up to give evidence to the inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1971 and talked publicly about his IRA past.
The two governments began talks with the pro-agreement parties, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Trimble Unionists, on Saturday, as soon as the election count was complete.
Paisley has said he wants to renegotiate the agreement. By renegotiate, he and his party mean replace it with an agreement that will guarantee a Protestant and pro-Union with Britain majority forever in the Northern Ireland Government.
The governments believe that some people voted for Paisley - who is 77 and in failing health - so that he would be tough in negotiations, not that he would completely destroy the agreement.
The British and Irish governments, who have joint responsibility for the peace process in Northern Ireland under the agreement, which is an international treaty, will have hard work establishing the power-sharing now.
Various cross-border bodies within Ireland will continue to function while talks go on to try to restore some form of devolution to Northern Ireland.
There is already talk of another election in six months - in the hope that by then the electorate will have realised giving so large a vote to Paisley rather than Trimble was foolhardy.