N. Ireland Self-Rule Starts With Loud Voice of Peace
Direct British rule ends tomorrow when assembly meets. Pro-peace parties rule.
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — Tomorrow, a newly elected assembly will choose Northern Ireland's first prime minister, ending 16 years of direct rule by London.
The choice, likely to be the pro-British David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), will open a new partnership government between the region's different communities.
A 108-seat assembly, elected last Thursday, includes 80 members who campaigned in support of April's peace accord, a sign of widespread public support to end decades of sectarian violence.
But beyond the election and choice of leaders, the assembly may face a bumpy road in working out the details of self-rule and meeting the accord's provisions on handing over weapons and setting up links between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Since 1972, when the unionist-controlled parliament was abolished, the British government has made political decisions on all aspects of life in Northern Ireland.
But now the region has a chance to "build a new society,' says John Hume, leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP).
The assembly members will have little time to savor their election victories.
The controversial Protestant parade at Portadown is planned for July 5 - just four days after the assembly convenes. The parade has been the scene of violent standoffs between Protestants and Catholics over the past four years, as the parade route includes a Catholic area.
Yesterday, a parade commission ordered march organizers to avoid the Catholic neighborhood. Still, Britain has beefed up its forces to prevent any violence.
The issue of the march may affect the opening days of the new assembly, which will met at Stormont's Castle Building outside Belfast.
After choosing a first minister, in effect a prime minister, the assembly will try to elect a deputy first minister. The winner is expected to be a senior member of the SDLP - either John Hume or Seamus Mallon.
The region's historic tensions will be played out in the new democratic body according to the number of seats won by the winning political parties.
On the pro-British side, Mr. Trimble's moderate UUP won 28 seats, while the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by the Rev. Ian Paisley took 20 seats.
On the pro-Ireland side, Mr. Hume's moderate SDLP won 24 seats, while Sinn Fein, which is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, took 18.
The moderate cross-community Alliance Party got six, independent unionists and loyalists five, and the Women's Coalition, two.
The strong showing of the pro-British unionist parties opposed to the Belfast agreement, led by Mr. Paisley, may bring political problems for Trimble.
This so-called "United Unionists" oppose any involvement by Sinn Fein in the new Northern Ireland government until the IRA hands over its weapons to the authorities.
The assembly's rules require a minimum 40 percent support, from both nationalist and unionist representatives, before any proposal can be passed. The United Unionists may be short of the numbers required to block legislation in the power-sharing assembly, but Belfast-based political scientist Eamon Phoenix believes "they will still seek to disrupt the business of the assembly."
Even within Trimble's party, serious splits have emerged due to his less-than-expected election result. But the UUP still has the most representatives in the assembly. Frank Miller, a commentator for The Irish Times newspaper noted there were "bitter recriminations swirling around unionists wherever they gathered across Northern Ireland."
But a defiant Trimble declared that "the show is on the road" and that "despite the tendency of unionism to shoot itself in the foot - those feet are still moving."
For Mr. Hume, ending direct-rule by London is an opportunity not to be missed and he argues that "the whole world will see the United Unionists as fascists if they try to wreck this process."
When the assembly meets, all facets of political life in Northern Ireland will be present.
Several of those elected were, in the past, perpetrators of violence. Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein served a jail term for his part in several London bombings in 1973, which left more than 100 people dead. Both of the successful Progressive Unionist Party members have terrorist backgrounds - David Irvine served a five-year sentence for having possession of a bomb while Billy Hutchinson was found guilty of murdering two Catholics in the early 1970s.
The youngest member is DUP's Paul Berry, a gospel singer, who may open the assembly with pro-British song.