A New Math in Ulster

Burdened by a history full of tragic dates, Northern Ireland at last may have inaugurated a bright one: May 22, 1998, the day that voters across the Emerald Isle voted for political dialogue and cooperation and against violence.

In the north, a better-than-expected 71 percent to 29 percent voted in favor of the Belfast agreement, which among its provisions sets up a new legislature for Northern Ireland, its first self-rule since 1974.

The election for the legislature comes quickly, on June 25. A wide spectrum of political parties that either favor continued union with Britain or joining with the Republic of Ireland are campaigning furiously.

The makeup of this new assembly will be crucial to its success and to the prospects for lasting peace. Unionists who voted "no" to the Belfast agreement want to elect enough of their representatives to ensure that they gum up the workings of the legislature and cause it to fail. The new assembly will need a majority of both communities or a 60 percent overall majority to pass bills. This means that a minority of the 108 delegates could strangle it.

The next few weeks will be crucial. A large turnout must be mustered to support candidates who are committed to making the assembly work.

Even with the referendum vote as a guide, predicting the outcome of this unprecedented election is difficult.

So herein is the unprecedented opportunity, if politicians have the vision to pursue it. The moderate-republican Social Democratic and Labour Party, led by John Hume, and the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party, led by David Trimble, could form a coalition during the election campaign. Both could urge votes for candidates of either party as long as they support the legislature.

This would also help keep Sinn Fein, with its ties to the Irish Republican Army, from being a power broker in the assembly. The Belfast agreement calls for arms to be turned in within two years, and unionists are calling on the IRA to make an immediate, good-faith start. But the IRA seems far from ready to do so. Taking on the issue will be one of the assembly's most prickly tasks.

Cooperating across the Catholic-Protestant line would be a kind of political new math for Northern Ireland. But many there now see that the real line lies between those who want self-government and progress and those mired in a violent, sectarian past.

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