The elections that swept British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party to a landslide re-election this month also dealt a troubling blow to the Northern Ireland peace process. In both the British Parliament contests for the region and elections for 26 lower-level councils, extremists from both sides gained on the moderate politicians who have been trying to implement the Good Friday accord.
Victories by the hard-line pro-British Democratic Unionists, led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, the party linked to the Irish Republican Army, could threaten the Protestant-Catholic power sharing at the heart of the 1998 agreements and pressure First Minister David Trimble to step down as leader of the joint government.
Trimble's Ulster Unionists lost two parliament seats to Sinn Fein and suffered a net loss of one in trading districts with Paisley and his allies, dropping from nine of the region's 18 British Parliament seats to six. Paisley's DUP now has five seats, Sinn Fein has four and the more moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party retains three.
With hard-line Protestants gaining on moderate pro-British forces and the hard-line Sinn Fein now surpassing the moderate Catholic SDLP, support for the middle ground negotiated in 1998 seems to be waning. Trimble's inability to get the IRA to surrender arms, rather than just decommissioning its weapons and opening its arsenals to independent inspection, has exacted a price at the polls.
Trimble has threatened to resign July 1 if IRA weapons aren't surrendered, but that timetable may now accelerate. Counts early last week showed local-level elections mirroring the parliamentary results, with nationalists now in control in the west and south of Northern Ireland and moderate parties losing ground. This election enhances the standing of the parties least enthusiastic about sharing power, and rewards Sinn Fein's partners for moving with glacial slowness toward disarmament.
As the moderate middle narrows, so do the chances of survival for the fragile accord. This election may have reinforced centrist Labor leadership in all of Great Britain, but the hardening of opinions that seems to have taken place in Northern Ireland does little to soften the future for that part of the Emerald Isle.