BELFAST/LONDON — For 30 years, it was the bullets that were the problem in Northern Ireland. Now it's the ballots.
The province's historic 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which sought to turn the page on decades of civil conflict, faces deadlock or worse after an election victory by a hard-line Protestant party categorically opposed to the peace deal.
In an irony that prompted an uneasy reaction in London, Dublin, and even Washington, the uncompromising Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is now the leading player in a peace process it rejects, after being declared the winner of last week's elections.
The sudden polarization of voter sentiment was also felt on the Catholic side of the divide, where Sinn Fein, political voice of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), emerged as the strongest party.
In theory, the two parties are now supposed to pull together to form a new government as part of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided for Catholics and Protestants to share power in Belfast.
The reality is likely to be very different. The DUP and its vociferous clergyman leader, Ian Paisley, reviles Sinn Fein as "terrorists" and says "never" to working together in a government with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
"The prospect of Ian Paisley as first minister and Gerry Adams as deputy first minister is incredible, fantastic - but it's also unrealistic," says Sydney Elliott, senior lecturer in politics at Queen's University in Belfast.
The upshot, analysts say, will be months of tough haggling at best, and outright gridlock at worst. Negotiations started almost as soon as the last vote had been counted at the weekend, with British Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy sounding out opinion among pro-agreement parties.
Mr. Murphy will meet DUP leaders early next week but can expect a rough ride. Paisley's son, Ian Paisley Jr., spelled out the message from his party after their election win, saying the 1998 agreement was "dead in the water."
The Good Friday Agreement aimed to end the sectarian strife that claimed 3,600 lives here by getting Protestant unionists, who want to remain part of Britain, and Catholic republicans, who want reunification with Ireland, to share power in local Belfast institutions. The project was part of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's grand scheme for devolved power across the United Kingdom, and arguably one of his greatest successes in office. For it to be eclipsed would be a hefty reversal for the British leader.
Yet progress has been faltering over the past four years. London has repeatedly stepped in and suspended devolved government in Northern Ireland amid mutual suspicions in Catholic and Protestant ranks, primarily over the reluctance of the IRA to disarm openly and speedily. Analysts say it was the failure to make progress on disarmament that drove so many voters to turn away from the pro-agreement Ulster Unionists and their leader, David Trimble, into the arms of the more hard-line DUP.
"There has always been an ambivalence about the agreement within the unionist community," says Dr. Elliott. "The slow pace of IRA decommissioning has kept that feeling to the forefront. The theme within unionism is, 'What have we got out of this?' Outsiders may well answer 'peace,' but unionists see the process in terms of repeated concessions to (Catholic) republicans."
The election's outcome for Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner who did much to keep the agreement moving over the past five years, could be politically terminal. His party may have lost only one seat, but he has rebellious elements in the ranks who rebuke him for ceding too much ground to Catholics during his time at the helm. A session of his party Monday was expected to be stormy. "The party is not going to unite under David Trimble, I think that is crystal clear," says Jeffrey Donaldson, a rival who champions the antiagreement cause.
But for those who disparage the 1998 agreement and the stop-start progress since then, Britain and the Republic of Ireland had a word of warning: the Good Friday Agreement stays. After all, a clear majority in Wednesday's ballot voted for pro-agreement parties. Final results gave Ulster Unionists 27 seats in the 108-seat chamber, with Sinn Fein getting 24 and the moderate Catholic Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) 18. The DUP won 30 seats.
"I think the parties will understand that the Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement in the terms of the Vienna Convention, so it can't just be set aside," said Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern.
The agreement is, however, open to fine-tuning in an imminent "review," which could provide the only conduit for compromise in what is essentially a classic stalemate.
Some are urging the DUP to understand that with power comes responsibility, and hoping that the extremist rhetoric can be drowned out by the more moderate voices who realize that everyone agrees on one thing at least: There can be no return to violence.
"Clearly the pragmatists and the progressive elements within the DUP leadership are beginning to make their presence felt," says Sinn Fein party chairman Mitchell McLaughlin. "There may be people in the DUP now who are saying they will not talk to Sinn Fein, but they will," he adds. Sinn Fein leader Adams says: "We accept Ian Paisley's mandate, and we ask him to respect the mandate of all the other parties."