Strange Bedfellows in Northern Ireland

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Not much is normal about elections in Northern Ireland. When voters trooped to the polls on March 8, they did so without knowing if there would be a functioning government coming out the other side or even if their elected representatives would be in a job at the end of the month. Two-thirds of them turned out anyway. The outcome was fairly predictable, in that elderly Protestant preacher Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, who turned IRA gunmen into formidable political operators, tightened their respective holds on the Protestant and Catholic vote. But what happens next is not nearly as easy to forecast. The British and Irish governments are counting on the former enemies cooperating to end the region's political paralysis and put the finishing touches on a peace process that has dragged on far longer than anyone expected. Paisley and Adams, by the way, have never spoken directly to each other.

Still, Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, the party led by Adams, have broadly indicated they're willing to work together under rigid power-sharing arrangements. That's encouraging since they're expected to run the region together in a matter of weeks. And they need to talk about the details. The DUP wants more assurances that Sinn Fein has left behind their associates in the IRA and will genuinely support Northern Ireland's police. "Sinn Fein are not entitled to be at the table until they declare themselves for democracy," said Paisley. "I'm a democrat." Adams wants to be sure his people are in a working administration before they play that final card.

Clearing this sort of hurdle has become an art form in Northern Ireland, but the efforts are complicated by a deadline. The British Government has given the parties until March 26th to strike a deal. If it doesn't happen, they say they will pull the plug on the newly elected Northern Ireland Assembly and start looking at other arrangements for governing the region. Paisley thinks they're bluffing, in part because the deadline is being dictated by Tony Blair's desire to see a decade of effort on Northern Ireland rewarded with a settlement before his impending retirement. British officials tend to think the 80-year-old unionist is the bluffer, believing he wants to crown his own political career by being Northern Ireland's First Minister.

Negotiations resumed while votes were still being counted and will continue through the pilgrimage of Irish politicians to Washington for St Patrick's Day (March 17). Whether the deadline works or not, senior members of both Sinn Fein and the DUP believe a deal in inevitable. The strange thing is that's because the voters have now cast polarised politics in concrete. The 1998 Good Friday Accord was built around moderate parties, but Paisley and Adams have now eclipsed them — in practical terms, there's no one else to work with. That might not be a great foundation for a functioning government, but if both sides want to win any more elections, it's the only one they've got.