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Gary Younge
Hanging by a thread

They will stick an Irish tricolour on the top and light it as they watch the flames dance to the tunes of their loyalist repertoire. The next day the Orange Order will march past the smouldering ashes to the pounding of drums and promises of defiance.

It is going to be another hot summer in Northern Ireland. The signals from the dispatch box, ballot box and the streets are not, immediately, encouraging. In May, David Trimble, the first minister of the assembly and leader of the Ulster Unionist party, pledged to resign on July 1 if the IRA did not start decommissioning. The one assurance that Sinn Fein has given him is that this will not happen.

Trimble's pledge was part of an electoral strategy designed to woo loyalist voters and unite his own party. It failed miserably. His party lost three of its nine seats, and he only just hung on to his own, while his principal rival, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party, won two. And even though Trimble was spared an internal challenge this weekend, his party remains bitterly divided.

His poor showing was not the only significant development in the region on election night. While apathy, antipathy and stasis reigned elsewhere, more than a third of the 18 seats in Northern Ireland changed hands and the turnout increased. Meanwhile Sinn Fein doubled its number of seats to four and took its place as the most popular party among nationalist voters. With the political consensus apparently fracturing, so a wavering but so-far enduring peace is also fraying.

On the streets of Ardoyne in north Belfast, shots were fired at the RUC and a pipe bomb thrown across the peace line during two days of rioting, as police were forced to escort Catholic children to primary school. We are about to enter the marching season with the electorate polarised, the assembly weaker, gunfire on the streets and the Good Friday agreement under threat. The outlook could not appear more bleak.

But appearances are deceptive. The overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland still supports the Good Friday agreement. Adding the votes cast for all the parties who support the agreement (including the UUP and Sinn Fein) the tally is 74% - slightly higher than the number that voted for the agreement itself. Well over half of all people think the chances of peace are better than they were five years ago, and only 7% think they are worse, according to the Northern Ireland life and times survey. Half of all respondents thought the assembly would still be in place in three years time - only a fifth did not.

Only 40% thought relations between Catholics and Protestants would be better five years from now, but only 7% thought they would be worse. Stand at the feet of the huge statue of the grandfather of unionism, Edward Carson, which towers over the Stormont lawn and you can see the cranes building on the hope that has emerged from the relative stability.

So the survival of Trimble and the survival of the peace process are not necessarily synonymous. It is a fact that both Dublin and London should bear in mind as they put pressure on Sinn Fein to save Trimble by making a gesture over arms. Trimble's deadline was not an act of considered principle made to reassure Protestants, but one of rash desperation to protect his job. He told the prime minister and the Northern Ireland Office only 10 minutes before he announced his attentions at Stormont and few in his party knew beforehand.

He has every right to be frustrated with the IRA for the laggardly pace of decommissioning. Just as Sinn Fein have every right to be frustrated by his determination - repeated this weekend - to obstruct the implementation of the Patten report on reform of the RUC. But as the leader of the largest unionist party at a sensitive moment in the region's history, his considerations have to go beyond frustration and petulance.

In his demands for decommissioning, he has the backing of most people in Northern Ireland; in undermining the assembly to get it, he does not. His principle strategy has been to threaten to leave and take his ball with him if he does not get what he wants. Last January he said he could last only another week unless there was decommissioning; the then Northern Ireland minister, Peter Mandelson, suspended the assembly and reimposed direct rule from Westminster. Now he is at it again. And again the British government, and possibly the Irish too, is about to indulge his caprice by putting pressure not on him but on Sinn Fein.

Far from saving the peace process and supporting moderate unionist voices, their actions will have the opposite effect. In times of uncertainty and the absence of strong leadership, people will move towards the most strident voice. There is none so strident as Paisley's. As recent election results indicate, when a question mark hangs over the Good Friday agreement it is the hardliners who gain. The more it looks as though the fragile peace will snap, the quicker both communities will return to their laagers.

So Trimble needs to ask himself two questions: "Will my actions enhance the interests of the peace process?" and "Can I take sufficient numbers of the loyalist community with me to deliver peace?" If the answer to either is no, he should step aside. And quick. Unionists need, and deserve, someone who can lead with principle and conviction.

While there is a majority in Northern Ireland for the peace process, there is still not a consensus in favour of the Good Friday agreement. Catholics are overwhelmingly supportive and therefore increasingly confident; Protestants, however, are uncertain and increasingly insecure. Between 1996 and 1999 there was a 13% increase in the proportion of Catholics who thought relations between the religious communities had improved; among Protestants there was a decline of 2%.

Paradoxically, it is the younger generation on both sides which holds far more entrenched views than their parents, who were raised during the Troubles. Young Catholics, buoyed by the economic and cultural vibrancy of the south and reassured by Sinn Fein's stance on peace, are far more likely to describe themselves as Irish than their parents, and flocked to Sinn Fein at the elections.

Young Protestants, who will not enjoy the privileges their parents had and so see all change as threatening, are again finding comfort in the past rather than hope in the future. It was they who the RUC chief described as "scum" after the Ardoyne disturbances. And it is their insecurities that Trimble should be allaying rather than trying to exploit. For it is they who will be lighting the fires next time.

Related articles
22.06.2001: Catholics call for end to Ulster violence
22.06.2001: Violence engulfs friendly schools
21.06.2001: Rioting youths clash in Belfast
21.06.2001, comment: Belfast stares into the abyss
18.06.2001: Blair and Ahern to discuss disputes with Ulster parties at Downing Street
19.06.2001, comment: Yet another Northern Ireland deadlock

Audio report
Rosie Cowan reports from Belfast

22.06.2001: Steve Bell on the Ardoyne riots

Press review
What the Irish papers say
What the US papers say

Local media
Irish News
Andersonstown News
Belfast Telegraph

Talk about it
Where now for the Northern Ireland peace process?

Useful links
Ulster Unionists
Democratic Unionist Party
Sinn Fein
Social Democratic and Labour Party
Belfast Telegraph
Irish Times
Irish News
Northern Ireland Office
Cain (Conflict Archive on the web)

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