In the wake of the election results, no doubt many people — editorial writers among them — will be tempted to race to their W.B. Yeats to look up "The Second Coming" and dig out these lines: "The center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed/And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned."
After all, have not the political moderates of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the extremists of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein? "The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of a passionate intensity."
But hold those quotes for the moment. Or save them for another occasion (though, hopefully, one will never arise).
They might have been appropriate to the election of early 1974, when Brian Faulkner’s Unionists were routed by the anti-Sunningdale Unionists in a prelude to the disastrous overthrow of the first power-sharing executive — then, indeed, "the blood-dimmed tide was loosed" upon the North. And it took over a quarter of a century to recede. But it has receded, and the situation facing the North and its people today is very different from that of 1974.
In this election, no one actually ran against the Good Friday agreement, except perhaps Bob McCartney. And he lost. The DUP ran against aspects of the agreement, as did members of the Ulster Unionist Party. Even Sinn Fein and the SDLP ran on the promise that certain parts of the agreement would have to be looked at again. — i.e. policing.
Indeed, it could be plausibly argued that all the parties ran their campaign claiming that the problem was not with the Good Friday agreement per se but with the fact that it had not been properly implemented — or at least, not to their liking. The Unionists, both DUP and UUP, argue that the decommissioning clause has not been implemented; Nationalists claim that the policing reforms promised in the agreement have not be properly implemented.
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No Unionist ran on the demand for the whole thing to be scrapped and its institutions pulled down. For it was quite clear that the DUP leaders were as happy working those institutions as were those in the UUP — as long, that is, as decommissioning was dealt with to their satisfaction.
This is not to minimize the difficulties that now lie ahead thanks to the fact that the parties that enjoyed the most success, Sinn Fein and the DUP, are precisely those whose ideas about implementing the agreement appear to be the most irreconcilable. Nor is it to dismiss the threat facing David Trimble’s leadership. His enemies are ready to use every setback as proof that they are being led down the road to political extinction.
However, his enemies face a real problem as well. As Trimble himself said to the Observer’s Ireland correspondent: "There is no one else to pass the baton on to, so I have to keep running with it." Look at his potential rivals: Jeffrey Donaldson is too cowardly, the Rev. Martin Smyth too dim, and David Burnside too unprepared to take his place. Of course, that does not mean one or other of them will not have a go.
Anyone who saw the reaction of the loyalist mob to Trimble’s reelection, as they howled for his blood, and beset him and his wife, Daphne, as they left the building where the count took place, cannot but admire the bravery of the man, regardless of what they might think of his politics. No other candidate faced that kind of intimidation. Those who should take account of it most closely are the IRA and the republican leadership.
Trimble’s dilemma is partly their responsibility. They cannot wash their hands of the situation that they have helped create. As one observer pointed out, Sinn Fein ran their anti-Nice Treaty campaign on the grounds that it would force Ireland into a European Union army. How can a party be anti-militarist while it has an armed wing, stocked with a hundred tons of weapons?
The time for the republican movement to put its arms verifiably beyond use has come. In fact, it came long ago, with the entry of Sinn Fein into the peace process. But now that that strategy has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the biggest vote the party has ever enjoyed — indeed, probably its most successful outing since partition — it is time to act. An arms dump or two sealed under the supervision of the decommissioning body, which would report then that arms have been put verifiably beyond use, would throw the DUP and its allies on the defensive, strengthening Trimble’s position and ensuring his survival as first minister.
The republican movement has already played a crucial role in the creation of the peace process. It must now have the courage to help bring it to its logical conclusion.