As the Echo goes to press, it was still unclear as to whether the British government would get cold feet at the last moment and call it all off. It might do so despite the fact that just about every party is in favor of fighting the election. Of course, Sinn Fein and the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party are perhaps the most sincere about their eagerness to contest the polls, since both are confident they are going to increase their vote. The British government’s hesitation about giving a definite yes to the election is a product of its trepidations for the fate of moderate Unionism, which it fears will be savaged by the Paisleyite pit bull.
Of course, no one in a democratically elected government can admit that he would prefer it if the elections were called off. Being against elections is a bit like being against motherhood and apple pie. It is supposed to be the essence of the democratic process and good democrats are expected to applaud even when the result of the election is the opposite of that which they would like. Too bad, that’s in the nature of the process. And postponing them again would hold the British government up to the charge that it will only hold an election in Northern Ireland when it can be sure of getting the result that it does want.
As usual, things could change drastically, depending on whether the IRA condescends to come down from the mountain with something that would convince the Ulster Unionists that it is serious about its commitment to the democratic process.
If this sounds familiar, it is. And so are the reasons why the political establishment finds itself in this uncertain state.
First, we had an IRA statement meant to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s demands for an “act of completion.” It fell short of Blair’s demands. There was a clarification, but it was not clear enough. Then last week, Gerry Adams, like Moses, went up the mountain and came down again with further clarification in answer to Blair’s three questions about decommissioning, the end of the campaign, and the end of all IRA activities. On the first two, Blair gave Adams a passing grade, but on the third, he failed him. Meanwhile, David Trimble, the UUP leader, found only ambiguity where republicans were seeing clarity. Once more, Northern Ireland had proved that meaning had more to do with politics than with semantics.
The British, whatever their misgivings, should allow the election wheels to roll. No one is so unlikely to take a risk than a politician before an election. That is true of the leaders of the republican movement. There is more chance of a breakthrough after they have secured their vote and are confident that they have their constituency with them. And there is no doubt that the majority of nationalists want this process to work and the conflict to end permanently and will vote accordingly.