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Last Updated: Monday, 1 December, 2003, 17:59 GMT
Analysis: NI's new political landscape

By Kevin Connolly
The BBC's Ireland correspondent

Northern Ireland has a new political landscape after last week's election, a landscape where everything is uphill going.

This is a democracy emerging rather uncertainly from decades of violence and so it has evolved its own rules and structures, which make it rather hard for the outsider to grasp what is happening.

All elections, for example, appear not as a straightforward contest, but as two parallel races in which two nationalist parties compete for the vote of Catholics, and two unionist movements fight for the support of the Protestant community.

Adams and Paisley
Adams and Paisley remain at odds

There are some people who do not vote according to their tribal origins, but they remain few in number.

All the problems at the moment stem from the fact that the winner on the unionist side, the DUP, is categorically refusing to talk to the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, as the largest parties in their respective communities, these are two movements which should this week be nominating candidates for first and deputy first minister, and thus together creating a new devolved administration.

And yet everyone knows that simply isn't going to happen. After all, consider the personalities involved.

The DUP leader, the Reverend Ian Paisley, is a fiery pope-bashing preacher, whose oratory, developed over decades in pulpits and public meetings, is at its fiercest when directed at the IRA.

The British Government's policy is to try to get people talking, build up momentum, apply pressure, and then hope for a deal
His enemies say there is a sinister vein of simple anti-Catholic prejudice in much of what he says. He would vigorously deny that.

Gerry Adams is now a rather magisterial leader of Sinn Fein, who is widely assumed by his supporters and detractors alike to have been a senior figure in the IRA. His denials of that charge make no difference to that widespread assumption.

Clearly these two men are not going to form an administration together.

DUP demands

The DUP wants a complete renegotiation of the Good Friday agreement, the cross-community deal signed after years of negotiation in 1998, because it says it contains too many concessions to republicans, and it regards Sinn Fein as the political wing of the IRA.

Most of those concessions, like the removal of the title of Royal Ulster Constabulary from the police force, cannot be rolled back.

Indeed, the majority vote within the unionist community for the DUP seems almost like a collective cry of pain from those Protestants who perceive that the agreement has delivered more concessions to nationalists than it has to them.

Ballot box
Anti-agreement parties polled well
Nationalists, of course, would argue that those concessions simply amounted to a long overdue addressing of their grievances.

So is there any hope? The British Government's policy at these moments is to try to get people talking, build up momentum, apply pressure, and then hope for a deal.

That sort of worked when David Trimble was at the helm of unionism. It is not going to cut much ice with Ian Paisley is in charge.

And there is supposed to be a review of the working of the Good Friday Agreement about now, anyway. With a little judicious presentational work, that could be made to feel at least something like the renegotiation the DUP demands, but no one wants.

Devolution delays

In the context of such a review, the government might even be tempted to fix one of the immediate difficulties, which is that devolution can't start until there are candidates for first and deputy first minister, who command majorities in both nationalist and unionist halves of the House.

If you reduce the number of votes needed to become first minister, it might even be possible to put forward David Trimble, leader of the defeated Ulster Unionists, again.

An easy answer? Well not really. First of all you would need a substantial gesture from republicans to tempt him, and then he would struggle to sell it to sceptics in his own party.

In other words, pretty much the same situation as dragged on throughout last year.

Bleak prospect

So that does suggest that there are at least some ideas to play with, but no one is pretending there is an easy short-term solution.

The truth is the government designed Northern Ireland's political system on the assumption that parties more or less in favour of power-sharing would come out on top.

It never occurred to them that a party with grave doubts about it would win, but the triumph of the DUP has shown just how false that assumption was.

As a result, the prospect for re-establishing devolved government in Northern Ireland, in the short term anyway, look very bleak indeed.

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