Dean Godson

Meeting of the extremes

Dean Godson on the background to last week's elections in Northern Ireland

That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,’ quipped David Trimble with black humour as he bounded in to meet with Paul Murphy, the Northern Ireland Secretary, in the Lady Grey Room at Hillsborough Castle last Saturday. As well he might: for the first time, Ian Paisley’s anti-Agreement Democratic Unionists had won more seats than the moderate Ulster Unionists in a Stormont election.

The drift away from the parties of the centre ground in last Wednesday’s poll was even more dramatic on the nationalist side, where Gerry Adams’s Sinn Fein inflicted a ‘Redmond moment’ upon the Social Democratic and Labour party led by Mark Durkan. In other words, an overwhelming defeat not far removed from the death blow suffered by John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary party at the hands of republicans in the 1918 general election.

No. 10 claimed privately to be shocked over this outcome on the morning after. But should they be so surprised? And are the British and the Irish governments really that unhappy? Did they, in fact, see certain advantages in a victory of the two extremes, which has been termed as the ‘Molotov’Ribbentrop pact by the Lagan’?

Many had long believed that the SDLP was bound to be a casualty of the process of ‘constitutionalising’ Sinn Fein/IRA. Once the IRA had ceased full-scale armed struggle, and the governments were prepared to make politics worthwhile for them, what was the SDLP’s raison d”tre? The party was older, poorer and less glamorous. Any time the SDLP settled for something, such as endorsing the new policing arrangements, the British would make further concessions to Sinn Fein. Why vote for a party that could only obtain less? Indeed, Mark Durkan recalls Tony Blair telling the SDLP on the occasion of President Clinton’s visit in December 2000, ‘You guys ‘ your problem is, you don’t have guns.’

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