A victory for opponents of Northern Ireland accord

Leaders in London and Belfast could face leadership challenges after Thursday's vote.

A by-election in Northern Ireland appears to have opened a gaping hole in the foundation of the April 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Analysts say First Minister David Trimble is facing a fight for his political life after his Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's largest political group, suffered a surprise defeat on Thursday for a seat in Britain's House of Commons. The UUP candidate lost out to the Democratic Unionist Party, a more radical pro-British group that opposes the accord.

The loss also threatens plans to reform Northern Ireland's heavily Protestant police force. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is to be renamed, and efforts are under way to recruit more Catholics into its ranks.

Trimble, co-winner of a Nobel prize for his work on the peace accord, promised over the weekend to "fight on." Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said the government was "determined to carry through reforms of the RUC."

But the Rev. Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, claimed his party had "taken over the mantle of Unionism," and said a "discredited" Trimble "must go."

"Trimble faces concerted opposition to his leadership of the UUP from Unionist hardliners," says political commentator Christopher Walker. "Ian Paisley's DUP will now target other seats held by the UUP, including Trimble's own." The UUP holds eight seats in Britain's Parliament, and a majority in Northern Ireland's self-rule assembly. The UUP's Jeffrey Donaldson, who opposes the peace process and challenged Trimble's leadership in the past, said his party is in "electoral meltdown."

For Prime Minister Tony Blair, the upset in the previously safe seat of South Antrim was the latest in a series of embarrassments. His government has been criticized for its handling of a fuel crisis. Last week, for the first time in eight years, opinion polls showed the Labour government trailing the Conservative opposition. Revelations about the chaotic finances of London's Millennium Dome and reports of acute tensions between Mr. Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown have added to Blair's troubles.

Today, the prime minister faces his party's annual conference knowing that for the first time, his leadership is being questioned by key supporters. The Northern Ireland peace agreement is widely seen as one of Blair's main achievements. David Sharrock, Irish affairs analyst of London's Daily Telegraph, says Blair faces the prospect that "the huge effort he has put into solving the Ulster conflict may all be wasted."

A key factor in the DUP victory, Mr. Walker says, was the failure to persuade the Irish Republican Army to hand over its arms and explosives. Instead, the IRA has agreed only to open some of its arms dumps to international inspection. "Ever since it became clear that the IRA had no intention of decommissioning its weapons, Mr. Mandelson has realized that the biggest threat to the peace process was likely to be the ballot box," Walker says.

In an otherwise bleak week, it was reported Saturday that two feuding pro-British paramilitary groups were discussing a nonaggression pact. The Ulster Defense Association and Ulster Volunteer Force said they wanted to end a feud that has claimed three lives.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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