Post-election violence in Northern Ireland deals setback to Prior plans for troubled province

The elections that were meant to provide a forum of agreement between Northern Ireland's 1 million Protestants and half-million Roman Catholics have instead produced a grim scenario.

The boost given to militant republicans who won five assembly seats has led to an upsurge of violence. This in turn has led to loyalist counter-violence. The communities have become more rather than less polarized, and the prospects for political agreement are more remote.

The British government will persist in trying to make the Northern Ireland assembly work, but few people are hopeful for its success. Meanwhile, the head of the police force warns that unless terrorism is halted, the province has no future.

Within a week of polling day six people had died. They included three policemen and a part-time soldier killed by the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) and two Catholics, one of them a member of Provisional Sinn Fein - the political wing of the republican movement. The Catholics were killed in retaliation by loyalist extremists, and the danger remains of more reprisal killings by both sides.

All this represents a setback for James Prior, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, who will need all his considerable powers of conciliation to salvage any prospect of limited agreement.

Later this month 59 elected representatives from the Protestant majority and the moderate Alliance Party will take their seats in the 78-member assembly. Significantly, however, 21 will not. These include 14 from the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party and the five members of Sinn Fein. The SDLP is boycotting the assembly because Protestants won't share power and because, it says, there is no hope of an all-Ireland dimension. Sinn Fein is boycotting because it is dedicated to the overthrow of the assembly and the Dublin government in its pursuit of a socialist republic for all of Ireland.

Sinn Fein is likely to use its new status to justify its campaign, both at home and abroad. In the United States and elsewhere it can point to 61,000 votes as a mandate for its twin-pronged approach, which was summarized earlier this year by Danny Morrison, a successful assembly candidate. He said that the way ahead lay through the ballot-box in one hand and the Armalite rifle in the other. The republican movement now has votes as well as arms.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.