Irish Vote Could Lead to Terror

The triumph of Protestant and Catholic hard-line political parties in Northern Ireland's Assembly elections last week is a stunning setback for President Bush's war on terror.

The triumph of Protestant and Catholic hard-line political parties in Northern Ireland's Assembly elections last week is a stunning setback for President Bush's war on terror. And it is likely to lead to the rapid emergence of a new terrorist threat from a direction he never expected.

For the past three years, Bush has treated the Northern Irish peace process with a neglect that was supposed to be benign but has proven anything but. Former State Department Policy Planning Chief Richard Haass was the only Bush Administration senior official who made a serious effort to maintain U.S. involvement in bringing both sides together and forcing new compromises. But he received no support from the White House and eventually resigned in frustration.

Now, Rev. Ian Paisley's hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, after 32 years of trying, has finally displaced the old Ulster Unionist Party as the main political body in Northern Ireland's 900,000-strong Protestant community with 30 seats compared to the UUP's 27 in the 108-seat Northern Ireland Assembly.

But the hard-liners' dominance is far greater than that, as 13 of the UUP's 27 Assembly members also oppose power-sharing with Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. They are likely to force the toppling of their leader David Trimble, one of the architects of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, and make common cause with Paisley's DUP on key issues.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made clear Britain is prepared to continue its Direct Rule over Northern Ireland. But Paisley and the DUP have already said they will not be satisfied with this and will present it as an anti-democratic plot by the British and Irish governments to prevent the democratic majority asserting its will.

The object of their wrath on the streets of Belfast is very likely to be the controversial new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which Blair reshaped to replace the old Royal Ulster Constabulary. This means that for the first time in the 35-year history of the current Northern Irish conflict, the majority Protestants are likely to clash directly with the British Army rather than enjoy its full support against the terrorism and guerrilla attacks of the Catholic nationalist IRA.

If that happens, the British in Northern Ireland could find themselves, for the first time, facing escalating clashes that rapidly escalate into full-scale guerrilla attacks from the hard-line Protestant paramilitary organizations. Ironically, these received an enormous boost thanks to the peace process as hundreds of their most experienced veteran gunmen and extremist leaders were released on to the streets as part of it.

Then Northern Ireland could rapidly become ungovernable, forcing the British government to consider a unilateral withdrawal. That has certainly been the goal for many years of some hard-line Protestant or Loyalist extremists. Up until now, they have always been a marginalized minority within their own community. But the DUP's hard-line victory last week is likely to greatly magnify their influence.

Veteran Irish historian and pundit Conor Cruise O'Brien predicted many years ago that if this state of affairs ever happened, it could rapidly spark a full-scale civil war far worse than anything Ireland has seen in its modern history. In the past, Protestant paramilitary terrorism, while often extremely vicious, was targeted on the minority Catholic community. The British Army, regular police and domestic British targets were spared. But if the Protestant majority becomes increasingly alienated from Britain as Direct Rule continues, British soldiers and even civilians on the British Mainland may become their main victims. Even American civilians or officials in Ireland could become targets as Protestant hard-liners have always interpreted U.S. involvement in Northern Irish peace efforts as cynical maneuvers to undermine their independence and security.

Bush Administration hard-liners have long demonized the IRA and opposed making any concessions to it or to its political wing, Sinn Fein. But none of them ever anticipated the eruption of a new wave of terrorism from Northern Ireland's Protestant majority. Yet since the 1998 peace accord was signed, Protestant paramilitaries have killed far more people than their Catholic counterparts.

Over the past half decade, Northern Ireland's peace process has been a beacon of hope that intractable ethnic conflicts around the world could be peacefully resolved. But if the Protestant community rapidly radicalizes following last week's vote, it could swiftly become a symbol of despair instead.


Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International.  This piece is used with the permission of UPI.