Powersharing faces decisive test
By John O'Mahony
Mark Twain famously said, on reading a premature obituary of himself, that reports of his death had been "greatly exaggerated". Frequent reports of the death of the Good Friday Agreement in the last four years have also been greatly exaggerated. It has survived crisis after crisis. It may not survive the crisis now shaping up.
The Ulster Unionist Council decided on 21 September, to withdraw support for the Council of Ireland and from all cross-border bodies, and that unless there is IRA disarmament by 18 January 2003, the Trimble Unionists will withdraw from the powersharing government, which will then collapse.
It seems certain that the IRA will not accept the Unionists' ultimatum.
In previous ultimatums of this sort a fudge has later been found, the IRA has made some token gesture - as when it destroyed some of its arms - and things have settled down again.
What is new now is that all Northern Ireland politicians have their eyes on the election to the Northern Irish Assembly due by next May. Massive Protestant dissatisfaction with the results of the Good Friday Agreement threatens the Trimble Unionists with electoral shipwreck.
The signs are that they want to bring down powersharing so that they can go to the electorate as militant Unionists and not as Sinn Fein's tainted partners in government.
Whatever happens in January the election is likely to produce results that will make Power Sharing government impossible. Sinn Fein is expected to forge ahead of the SDLP as the majority Catholic Party. Unionist critics and opponents of Good Friday, Paisleyites and others, are likely to win a sizeable majority of Unionist seats (they are already the majority).
Powersharing between Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley? Stranger things have happened, but don't count on it.
The UUC ultimatum is an attempt to avoid electoral annihilation in May. Behind it lies Protestant dissatisfaction. Only 50% of Protestants supported the Agreement in 1998. It far less than that now. Much increased street violence and paramilitary activity is a consequence.
There is some evidence that the IRA has orchestrated the Catholic side in street violence. In part they do this in order to provoke Protestants and wreak maximum havoc among their opponents and stoke their conflict with Britain.
Sinn Fein/IRA ultimately look to Britain action over the heads of the Protestants, not to Protestant-Unionist agreement, to deliver a united Ireland.