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Thursday, 17 October, 2002, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
Analysis: Attitudes to devolution

This BBC Northern Ireland poll, taken in the wake of the police raid on Sinn Fein's Stormont offices and John Reid's decision to suspend the power sharing executive, will make gloomy reading for the government and other proponents of the Good Friday Agreement.

During the four years since the people of Northern Ireland endorsed the agreement at an historic referendum enthusiasm for the deal has dwindled steadily, especially amongst unionists.

A narrow majority of unionists are believed to have backed the deal in the 1998 referendum - but if that referendum was held today the figure would be below a third, showing the size of the challenge facing the government as it attempts to put the deal back on track.

The stop start experiment in power sharing has clearly contributed to unionist disillusionment. Eyebrows will be raised by the statistic that 58% of unionists don't want to share power with either the SDLP or Sinn Fein.

So does this justify the republican claim that many unionists simply don't want to share power with Catholics?

Maybe, but bearing in mind that only 14% of unionists opted for old style majority rule a more charitable explanation might be that many are simply happier to return to the 'least worst option' of direct rule from Westminster than to contemplate another shaky coalition.

Nationalist politicians insist on one thing - namely that there can be no renegotiation of the Agreement.

So it may come as a surprise that more than half of those nationalists who responded to the survey said they would be prepared to see the deal renegotiated.

Despite the overwhelming support for the agreement amongst nationalists - still more than 80% - it seems there's a sense of pragmatism about what might have to happen if the process is to be revived.

Radical action needed

Certainly, if the Stormont humpty dumpty is to be put back together again, there appears to be a sense that something radical will have to happen.

Initiatives which many observers think might form part of the mix in any future talks - such as another act of IRA decommissioning or a statement that the IRA's war is over - attract negligible support as a sufficient condition for a return to devolved government.

IRA disbandment - the buzzword on many lips - polarises the two sides, attracting support from a quarter of unionists but less than five per cent of nationalists.

Whilst many nationalists want the Executive brought back without any pre-conditions the only requirement which is backed widely across the board is a full cessation of all paramilitary activity.

But in advocating this, were those surveyed setting the bar for the return of Stormont extremely high, or indicating what they would like to see in the best of all possible Northern Irelands?

David Trimble has been under constant pressure in recent months and given the findings on power sharing one might assume he would fare badly in this poll.

However he still emerges as the man regarded as the most effective unionist leader, narrowly ahead of Ian Paisley but far in advance of the young Ulster Unionist pretender Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP's Peter Robinson.

Moreover the Ulster Unionists still cling on to their narrow lead in party preference over the DUP.

When it comes to nationalist leaders, Gerry Adams has a clear personal advantage, reflecting the result of last year's Westminster and council elections when Sinn Fein surpassed the SDLP as the largest nationalist party.

The surprise is, perhaps, that the SDLP leader Mark Durkan isn't further behind the Sinn Fein President in the personal popularity stakes.


In DepthIN DEPTH
Find out more about the political deadlock in Northern Ireland The Peace Process
Full coverage of developments
See also:

17 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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