The more things change, the more they stay the same, was one cynic’s response to the election results in Northern Ireland on November 26, which resulted in overwhelming victories for Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin Party. Other, less cynical observers point out that the majority of voters, 70 percent, chose to support pro-Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) candidates and parties.
No matter which point of view you take, all agree that the impact is on paper only because the Assembly was suspended at midnight on October 14, 2002 and disolved on April 28, 2003, and has not been restored. Nonetheless, these election results mark an inexorable shift in the immediate political playing field, with a majority position achieved by what some would describe as the more hardline parties. The roles of the more moderate David Trimble from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Mark Durkan from the Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP), who previously enjoyed the majority, have been diminished as a result of this election.
The Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP won 30 seats as compared to David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party which won 27 seats. According to Alex Maskey, Sinn Féin’s Belfast Assembly member and former Lord Mayor of Belfast, “The DUP profited from mopping up seats from a range of dissident Unionist parties. We had six Unionist parties in the Assembly before, now we have three, so there has been a consolidation and a rationalization rather than a shift,” he said.
The Ulster Unionist Party has suffered internal problems resulting from UUP party member Jeffrey Donaldson’s anti-Agreement position and his repeated attempts to unseat his party leader David Trimble. Despite this, David Trimble’s UUP did far better in this election than had been predicted by many of his anti-Agreement opponents. In fact, the Ulster Unionists improved their Assembly position by one seat. Trimble’s supporters rallied around him, with a meeting of the party’s executive calling for Donaldson to take the party whip at Westminster, abide by party rules and policies and “desist from further detrimental activities.” On December 17, Donaldson announced his resignation from the party, stating that he was joining the DUP.
Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey has commented that the anti-Agreement Unionists have yet to produce a plan for the future. “Whatever happens in the ongoing battle within the UUP, what we can be sure about is the fact that neither Jeffrey Donaldson nor the DUP have been able to produce a credible plan for the way ahead. The two governments now have a crucial role to play in all of this. They must move ahead with a pro-Agreement agenda and make it clear to the rejectionists that they will not be allowed to block forward movement.”
Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin increased its position by six to take a total of 24 seats making it the largest nationalist party and the second largest political party in Northern Ireland. This was a significant shift in the vote among nationalists and occurred mostly at the expense of Mark Durkan’s more mainstream nationalist Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP) which lost six seats and was left with a total of 18 seats. Durkan, despite his party’s disappointing election results, has emphasized his continuing support of the Good Friday Agreement and has urged the governments to stand firm by the Agreement.
Referring to Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP becoming the largest unionist party, Durkan commented that Anti-Agreement forces cannot be allowed to turn the clock back. “The Agreement was approved by the people of Ireland. The election result has damaged the prospects of the Agreement but it has also confirmed the high level of overall support for it among people in the North,” he said, adding, “The two governments cannot let the anti-Agreement tail wag the pro-Agreement dog. The governments must stand firm by the Agreement, even in the absence of the Assembly. That means implementing commitments in the Joint Declaration on equality, human rights, criminal justice, and making progress on demilitarization. It means showing anti-Agreement elements that they do not have a veto on change.”
The surreal scenario unveiled by these election results meant that pundits were reporting that Ian Paisley would be the likely First Minister with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. But first the Irish and British governments would have to persuade the DUP to take part in a new Assembly with Sinn Féin, something Rev. Paisley’s party has said it will never do.
Following an exploratory meeting between the DUP and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on December 16, Paisley delivered, in thundering tones, his usual mantra about there being no conditions under which he would form a government with Sinn Féin before the IRA was dismantled. His party colleague, Peter Robinson, tried to downplay matters, stating that the party had a constructive agenda to unveil when the real talks get underway in January.
Dermot Nesbitt, a senior negotiator with the UUP and Trimble supporter, spoke to Irish America in advance of the December 16 Downing Street talks with the pro-Agreement parties. “Jeffrey Donaldson acted disingenuously and in a disgraceful manner,” he said. Nesbitt agreed that it didn’t seem likely that power would be restored to the Assembly any time soon given the scenario the DUP was painting, but said he wouldn’t rule it out over the next 12 months. “They [DUP] keep saying they are positive and imaginative. We will have to wait and see how imaginative they are,” he said, adding, “I want to see a stable, accountable administration working in Northern Ireland. The whole atmosphere would be changed if para-militaries and private armies were gone. That needs to be addressed.”
Pro-Agreement Unionist David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), who narrowly managed to hold on to his seat, acknowledges that restoration of the Assembly is now likely to take longer than hoped. “But it’s doable if we don’t panic,” he said. He doubts that the Good Friday Agreement would change drastically under a review. “Whether it’s a review or a renegotiation — people will call it what they will. It’s only cloud cover. You could manufacture a new Agreement if we abandoned this one and it would look a lot like the old one.” He believes that the essence of the Good Friday Agreement is not up for negotiation.
Sinn Féin Chairperson Mitchell McLaughlin also spoke to Irish America and emphasized Sinn Féin’s position that the British government should lift the suspension and transfer power back to the institutions in the North. “They have committed themselves to implementing the terms [of the Good Friday Agreement] and we are saying they should go ahead.” He also said that the “DUP has to accept the fact that the majority opinion, 70 percent, endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in the election. That’s only down 1.5 percent from five years ago.” He warned that the two governments should not pander to “anti-Agreement opinion, which is a 30 percent block” comprised of the DUP and dissidents from the UUP. The other 70 percent of party members, and the two governments, were “four square behind it,” he added, referring to the Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin’s mandate was confirmed by its increase in votes from the electorate, he said, “There was a recognition by the electorate that Sinn Féin is a party that solves problems and has stepped up to the plate when it comes to making deals and delivering on them. We have also convinced others and have used our influence on the IRA.”
McLaughlin expressed his hopes that Irish Americans would remain committed to the peace process. “Irish America has been energized by the peace process and provided assistance and support,” he said. “That focus should continue in times of difficulty, and there will be difficulties. It’s critical that Irish America stays focused and that people make themselves part of the peace process.”
Both the British and Irish governments responded to the election results by reiterating that the Good Friday Agreement was approved by the people of Ireland and could not be renegotiated. The Agreement’s terms of reference, however, allow for a review of its workings. One man’s review is another man’s renegotiation, quipped one journalist in London. An Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Bertie Ahem signalled that he would be prepared to accept changes to the Agreement to move things along. Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week, he said: “I accept fully that the review is going to mean change. I don’t want fundamental changes. I want to build on what we have.”
This is an interesting time for the peace process, but the mood of Northern Ireland is positive and there is a sense that the politicians will not be allowed to stand in the way of progress. However, the review of the Good Friday Agreement is scheduled to begin in the new year and will be a very important point in the determination of Northern Ireland’s future. ♦