By Alex Riuhardson
Published November 29th 2003 in New Zealand Herald
BELFAST - Hard-liners on both sides of Northern Ireland's sectarian divide have beaten moderates in province-wide elections, dealing a blow to Anglo-Irish hopes of saving the power-sharing assembly set up under a 1998 peace deal.
Final results from Wednesday's election confirmed that what British officials had privately called their "nightmare scenario" had been realised, with firebrand Protestant preacher Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party emerging as the largest group in the mothballed legislature.
Among Catholic voters Sinn Fein, political ally of the Irish Republican Army guerrilla group, thrashed the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party, completing a sharp polarisation of the political landscape in the British-ruled province.
London and Dublin had hoped a good showing for moderates would give fresh impetus to talks on restoring the assembly, suspended since October 2002 when allegations of IRA spying brought down the fragile power-sharing coalition.
Instead, the extremes of Protestant unionism, which wants to preserve Northern Ireland's political union with Britain, and Catholic nationalism, which seeks a united Ireland, are in the ascendant and a lengthy period of direct rule from London looms.
The assembly was set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which aimed to end three decades of political and sectarian violence in which more than 3,600 people died.
Paisley refuses to work with Sinn Fein, whom he calls "terrorists", and wants to re-negotiate the 1998 agreement he sees as giving too many concessions to Catholics.
"We have to go back to the drawing board," the DUP leader told Reuters at his party headquarters in east Belfast. "The Belfast (Good Friday) agreement has been over for a long time."
But Britain and Ireland were quick to rule out any renegotiation of the agreement and confirmed they would begin talks with the province's political leaders aimed at reviving home rule.
"In our firm view, the Good Friday Agreement remains the only viable political framework that is capable of securing the support of both communities in Northern Ireland," the two governments said in a statement.
The result was a bitter defeat for former First Minister David Trimble, head of the moderate Ulster Unionist Party, and prompted immediate speculation he might quit or be forced out.
"I've every intention of continuing as leader," Trimble, who shared a Nobel peace prize for his role in negotiating the 1998 accord, told reporters. "I have demonstrated clearly in the last eight years that there's more than a little stickability here."
As London and Dublin digested the results, the Bush administration expressed concern about their impact on the peace deal the US helped broker in 1998.
"Of course everybody is concerned," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters near the President's Texas ranch. "I do believe that after having a taste of peace, that the people of Northern Ireland desperately want peace."
When final results were confirmed the DUP held 30 seats in the 108-member assembly, the UUP 27, Sinn Fein 24 and the SDLP 18. The cross-community Alliance Party held six seats, with the remaining three shared between small parties and independents.
The Sinn Fein result was a triumph for party leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness -- both accused by political opponents and British security sources of having been top figures in the IRA -- who were confirmed as the leading voices of minority Catholics.
Underlining their success, Sinn Fein for the first time captured seats in Paisley's heartland in the North Antrim "bible belt" and in leafy south Belfast -- where its IRA links had previously put off middle-class voters.
Speaking to reporters at a Belfast counting center, Adams was relaxed about the DUP's success, and gave a sarcastic response to Paisley's refusal to deal with his party.
"I don't know of anything within Christian philosophy which is not about dialogue and dealing with sinners," he said. "As a sinner, I offer myself up on behalf of those I represent to be converted by Dr Paisley to his vision of the future."
Analysts predict direct rule of the province from London will continue for a long time as Britain and Ireland search for a new compromise.