Halted N. Irish election dents power-sharing process

Sinn Fein is set to hold protests Thursday in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

A million voters in this troubled province should have been going to polls Thursday to elect a new Assembly that would, in turn, have elected a new government with Protestants and Catholics sharing power.

The vote, it was hoped, would herald a new era of political stability and cooperation to underpin the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace accord - and eventually lead to the transfer of policing authority to the new Assembly.

Instead, the process has been suspended indefinitely, with London continuing to govern Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), says London has "canceled democracy" and its members are set Thursday to stage protests in more than 30 towns and cities in Northern Ireland and the neighboring Republic of Ireland - including a floating protest down the River Liffey in Dublin.

The reaction of ordinary people, north and south, to the suspended political process has been muted, however. They have grown wearily accustomed to watching the peace process soar and plummet over the past decade.

Concerns are being voiced by some observers, however, about rising street violence in flash point areas, with the onset of the annual summer "marching season" - when supporters of continued affiliation with Britain parade through towns and villages to proclaim their loyalty.

But most people agree that the uncertain present is preferable to the pre-1994 cease-fire violence. No matter how poisoned the political climate has become since the Assembly was deprived of its powers in October last year, there is no talk of any return to that vio-lence, either from the pro-British loyalist side or from the republican paramilitaries, who want to unify Ireland as a single, independent nation.

London and Dublin have published a "joint declaration" to implement all parts of the 1998 peace agreement that are not dependent on what they call "acts of completion" by the IRA, such as a declaration that the war is over and the full decommissioning of IRA weapons.

On May 1, however, three days after campaigning for the Assembly election had begun, the British government decided to postpone the election indefinitely, against Dublin's advice.

The public reason given for this drastic step was that the IRA, whose violent campaign for a united Ireland ended in its cessation of military operations in 1994, had not given sufficient assurances of peaceful intentions.

Sinn Fein maintains that the IRA was clear in its recent commitments to end all violence.

But, citing an absence of such assurances, David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party - the largest mainly Protestant party supporting Northern Ireland's link to Britain - warned that he would not cooperate in forming a new government if the election were held.

London also had another concern, which was not publicly tated but is widely suspected here. This concern was that the more extreme Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by fundamentalist preacher Ian Paisley, would overtake Trimble's party and become the largest pro-British political force.

Paisley's party strenuously opposes the 1998 peace accord and has pledged to demand fresh negotiations and a new peace deal that would not give Sinn Fein a place at the talks table.

Sinn Fein, for its part, had hopes of out-polling its more moderate pro-Irish unity rival, the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party.

If Paisley's party and Sinn Fein had been the winners in the now-postponed elections, it would have led to Northern Ireland's two extremes being asked to work in harness together - a nightmare prospect that British ministers fear would have been the death knell of the 1998 accord.

London is hoping to reschedule the elections for the fall - but some observers, including Brian Feeney, a political commentator and history lecturer at Queen's University in Belfast, say that timetable is overly optimistic. "This is a real crisis - not just a bump in the road," he says. "The whole thing has come to a shuddering halt. We have no working democratic forum of any kind as envisaged in the [1998 peace] agreement."

Paul Arthur, a professor of politics at the University of Ulster, says the US could offer a ray of hope: "Richard Haass [President Bush's key envoy to Northern Ireland] is a straight-talker, and if he could be persuaded to take on a continuing role, the process could yet be rescued."

Mr. Feeney, along with most Catholics, notes that the postponed elections and resultant delay in passing police authority from British to Northern Irish control will slow the companion process of reforming the Northern Irish police force and attracting more Catholic officers - a process considered crucial to stability here.

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