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Division day

Northern Ireland's recent election was bad news for moderates, but good news for peace.

FOLLOWING THE RECENT elections in Northern Ireland, many commentators warned that the most extreme proponents of Irish nationalism and British unionism had leapfrogged the more moderate factions, plunging the peace process into crisis.


After all, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by the firebrand Protestant preacher Rev. Ian Paisley, topped the poll, winning 30 seats in Northern Ireland's 108-seat assembly (which has been suspended for the past year). By doing so, Paisley's party won the right to say it spoke for most Protestants in Northern Ireland. And on the other side of the divide, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, won 24 seats, replacing the Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP) as the voice of most Catholics.

The mostly pessimistic analyses, however, are based on an outdated understanding. The DUP and Sinn Fein have supplanted more moderate rivals within their own communities despite their inextricable links to Paisley and the IRA, not because of them.

Paisley is without a doubt the soul of the DUP, which he founded in 1971 after a Unionist government's brutal crackdown on Catholic civil rights protesters touched off the Troubles. From the beginning, the DUP was even more intransigent than the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which had presided for a half-century over what one leader once described as a Protestant state for a Protestant people.

But it wasn't Paisley who designed and directed the DUP's most successful campaign. It was Peter Robinson, his more pragmatic and less dogmatic deputy. Paisley, now 77, was kept mostly on the sidelines during the campaign. Robinson leads a cadre of Paisley's underlings who share his rabid opposition to uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland but not his religiously fundamentalist view of politics as a contest between the forces of God and Satan. Most significantly, they are ambitious. Even though they opposed the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that established Northern Ireland's power-sharing assembly, they like the idea of devolved, local government that it entailed. Robinson and another of Paisley's deputies, Nigel Dodds, showed themselves willing and able ministers in the assembly's executive, though they steered clear of their Sinn Fein colleagues.

Last week, when Irish premier Bertie Ahern said he would invite the DUP leadership to Dublin for talks, Robinson declared his party had no problem discussing mutual concerns with the Irish government. There is no way anyone in the DUP would have gone to Dublin a decade ago. The very suggestion would have unleashed a round of invective from Paisley deriding the Republic as a foreign backwater secretly run by the antichrist, the pope in Rome. Clearly, the DUP that topped the polls has changed; so has the unionist electorate that voted for it.

Likewise, it is wrong to interpret Sinn Fein's impressive showing as a vote for the IRA. As long as the IRA was actively engaged in violence, Sinn Fein could never overtake the SDLP as the representative of most Catholics. But in the decade since the IRA called its first extended cease-fire in 1994, Sinn Fein's percentage of the vote has increased incrementally in each election -- including those held in the Republic of Ireland, where it has five members in the 166-member parliament. If the IRA went back to war, Sinn Fein's vote would drop precipitously, especially in the south, where it is determined to become more influential.

Sinn Fein does not canvass for votes by winking at Catholics and saying, "If the unionists don't play ball, we'll go back to war." It sells itself as being better than the SDLP at getting potholes filled and keeping the neighborhood health clinic open, and it has steadily attracted a growing number of middle-class voters who once voted for the SDLP.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP have also attracted support by insisting they are best suited to holding the other accountable. They claim to be more principled than the so-called moderates, who, they say, want peace at any cost. Some conclude that, as a result, the two parties will jointly create a perpetual stalemate. But such an analysis ignores the fact that both parties' leaderships want to wield power more than old slogans.

While Paisley thunders on, demanding the disbanding of not just the IRA but Sinn Fein itself, other DUP officials have worked with Sinn Fein on local councils, and presumably would work with Sinn Fein at the assembly level if the republican movement can convince most Protestants that the IRA is, in effect, out of business.

None of this will be easy. But to say it is impossible ignores the history of the peace process, which has consistently produced breakthroughs and gestures that not long before were considered impossibilities. Old shibboleths die, but far fewer people do, because of an imperfect but still viable process. The British government said it would never talk to terrorists, but it did. The IRA said it would never give up a single bullet, but it has -- though its refusal to reveal how much of its hidden arsenal it has destroyed continues to fuel strong unionist suspicion.

In a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland, it is not that surprising that the parties that once represented the extremes of political opinion now express the views of majorities within their own communities. The moderate parties, the SDLP and the UUP, have driven the process forward thus far. But the peace can only be cemented when the DUP and Sinn Fein accept its terms as well.

While the doomsayers speak of stalemate and breakdown, others who have been involved in the process see an opportunity. Mo Mowlam, who served as Britain's secretary of state in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 1999, is among those who believe that the election results are not the disaster so many described. She sees them as a democratic display of the fundamental division that has always existed on the island. If there is to be sustained peace in Ireland, it is a divide that must be confronted before it can be bridged.

Staff writer Kevin Cullen is the Globe's former Dublin and London bureau chief.

Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (top), and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (top), and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. (Reuters Photos)
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