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May 6, 2005
Has Northern Ireland Chosen A Return To The Troubles?

The fallout from the retreat of Britain's Labour Party from its previously unassailable majority has implications for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement that has kept the Troubles at bay. Tony Blair's political dominance had kept Northern Irish politics firmly fixed on the center, where moderate Unionists governed with some cooperation from moderate Republicans and kept the extremists relegated to the fringes. However, the British election resulted in a reversal, with the moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) losing all but one of its seats. The anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by radical Ian Paisley picked up three of the seats, while the moderate republican SDLP took over the South Belfast UUP seat, the first time a republican has represented that district:

The Ulster Unionist party was in meltdown last night after its leader, David Trimble, lost his seat to Ian Paisley's hardline Democratic Unionist party and what was once the biggest party in Northern Ireland was reduced to only one MP.

Mr Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had been MP for Upper Bann for 15 years, but lost by more than 5,000 votes, a margin that surprised even the winner, a gospel-singing meat wholesaler, David Simpson. ...

The DUP, now the biggest Northern Ireland party at Westminster, finished with nine seats, saying the unionist people had spoken out against the Good Friday agreement and "pushover unionism".

The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, said Mr Trimble brought the result on himself: "David Trimble took the wrong road."

David Trimble's political career looks finished. He couldn't even hold his own seat in the centenary year of the UUP, a stunning repudiation of several years of peace and relative tranquility in Northern Ireland. He reportedly will consider resigning as UUP leader, which seems almost redundant given the circumstances.

Interestingly, Sinn Fein has suffered no such loss of credibility, despite the involvement of their IRA partners in a brutal, senseless murder and a spectacular bank robbery in the past few months. In fact, SF gained a seat at the expense of the SDLP in Armagh. Gerry Adams, longtime spokesman for the SF and publicly outed as a commander in the IRA just weeks ago, increased his margin of victory in West Belfast by over 4% at the SDLP's expense.

This appears to demonstrate a rejection of the power-sharing arrangement at the heart of the Good Friday agreement by both unionists and republicans. The two extreme parties made significant gains in both seats and overall vote totals, although the SDLP managed to come close to a wash. If free elections give the electorate that best reflects their mood, it would seem that the Northern Irish have once again polarized into absolutist positions. While that does not mean that they have necessarily endorsed a return to active violence, it certainly rejects the only middle ground compromise yet established in the long Ulster conflict.

The lessons that both Paisley and Adams will take from this election are that the people want victory over accommodation. It threatens to reduce the GFA to nothing more than a footnote in the Troubles, since neither man has ever enthusiastically supported the Stormont Assembly structure. If that is borne out in the weeks ahead, the various militias will start feeling the pressure to re-arm themselves and start planning their war operations all over again. Indeed, one can argue that the IRA anticipated this result and started with its earlier armored-car robbery.

With Labour's grip on power slowly fading, its moderating influence in Ulster may well be where it is missed the most. Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail before the bombings and shootings begin.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 6, 2005 10:01 PM

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