On election day in Northern Ireland, David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, was roughed up by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) supporters as he approached the polling station. Trimble needed the protection of the police to get in and out of the building unharmed, and ended up with a few bruises. When the votes were counted the next day, most observers concluded that the DUP had roughed up and bruised the peace process as well, winning three closely watched races against the Ulster Unionists. Trimble’s Unionists lost three seats overall, reducing their parliamentary total from nine to six, and the Reverend Ian Paisley’s party gained two Westminster seats, raising their total to five. Trimble barely survived in his own constituency. In characteristic form, Paisley claimed that the majority of unionists were now against the Good Friday peace agreement and called upon Trimble to leave office for “destroying unionism.”
The other big development from the election was Sinn Féin’s surge past the Social Democratic & Labor Party as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin added two parliamentary seats to the two they already held, one in West Tyrone which they predicted they would win, and another more surprising victory for thirty-one-year-old Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Fermanagh/ South Tyrone was the seat that hunger striker Bobby Sands won twenty years ago. Gildernew is the first woman Sinn Féin member of parliament since Countess Markiewicz was elected in 1918. Both Gerry Adams and Education Minister Martin McGuinness held onto their seats in West Belfast and Mid-Ulster.
The West Tyrone victory was particularly significant for Sinn Féin. The constituency was also targeted by the SDLP, as they parachuted party leader and Agriculture Minister Brid Rodgers into the arena to challenge Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty. Doherty told a large gathering at the vote count that Sinn Féin was now at the heart of politics in Ireland and told the unionist community “we can work this out.”
But working things out in Northern Ireland has now become more difficult. It’s hard to determine whether Sinn Féin’s mandate will allow them to move the IRA forward on arms decommissioning or make them more intransigent. It’s clear that Sinn Féin will not be negotiating in a time-frame dictated by Trimble. Trimble is scheduled to resign as First Minister on July 1, if IRA arms decommissioning has not commenced.
On a purely visceral level, both DUP voters and Sinn Féin supporters have reason to celebrate. Trimble has perhaps been given his walking papers, and Sinn Féin has produced a campaign machine that has proven to be dynamic and creative compared with the faltering image of John Hume’s SDLP. Time will tell whether their gains will have a salutary effect on the peace process. There are many who argue that in the long term, the “hollowing out” of the political center is not a good sign. One critical difference between the DUP and Sinn Féin, of course, is that Sinn Féin is supportive of the peace process and the DUP is not. But if Trimble is replaced as leader of his party, his successor will undoubtedly insist on renegotiating the Good Friday anti-agreement. That will not happen, but what follows a certain deadlock is unpredictable.
In another context, William Butler Yeats warned of the dire social consequences of a “center” that would not hold. There is still an overwhelming desire for peace in Northern Ireland, and the local assembly has brought power to local communities and away from London, a very popular development. Whether these positive gains can overcome the centrifugal forces let loose by the general election results is what remains to be determined. ♦