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Peter Hadden

More questions than answers

Assembly election results

(July 1998)

From The Socialist [UK], 3 July 1998.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The most significant aspect of the elections is the weakening of the official unionists (UUP) leader Trimble’s position.

Among the unionist parties there was elements of disarray a the division between the yes and no camp on the Protestant side over the referendum carried through to the Assembly elections.

This produced the worst election result for the UUP since 1981, when the effects of the hunger strike enhanced the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP – Ian Paisley’s party) vote compared to the UUP.

This time Trimble suffered the humiliation of coming second to the Catholic nationalist SDLP in terms of first-preference votes. They only later became the largest party in the Assembly on the basis of transfers.

With a number of dissidents elected in the official unionist bloc it’s not-clear whether Trimble has a majority of votes on his side, which gives him very little room for manoeuvre.

The situation is complicated by the strong performance of the anti-agreement candidates, especially the UKUP – who picked up disaffected official Unionist votes and won five seats. The DUP maintained its percentage of the vote and has, for the time being, withstood a very direct threat from the smaller loyalist parties.

After the hurdle of electing the First Minister and his deputy there has to be the election of an executive. The issue then will be whether Trimble is prepared to sit in an executive with Sinn Fein prior to weapons being decommissioned.

The DUP have said they won’t participate if there’s no decommissioning. This will effectively give the SDLP and Sinn Fein a majority in the executive over the unionists.

It’s very unlikely that Trimble could accept that position. It may be that decommissioning, will become a sticking point. Or the continued implementation of the agreement could now depend on concessions from nationalists to strengthen Trimble and perhaps even (unthinkable in the past) some degree of decommissioning by the republican movement.

A UUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson, has categorically said that if Trimble sits down with Sinn Fein without decommissioning he will lead a split and a new party will develop. This could be quite a potent development because it could win over a majority of the UUP Westminster MPs and enough UUP Assembly members to give the No Unionists a clear majority.

The increase in the vote both for the SDLP and Sinn Fein, on the Catholic side, reflects the continued support for the agreement in Catholic areas and an expectation also that these parties can deliver some change.

Depending on events, particularly things like Drumcree, the Sinn Fein leadership has been strengthened by its performance in the election. But while the Adams leadership say that they will use the Assembly to push for a United Ireland, there is a contradiction between this and taking ministerial positions in an Assembly and through these establishing new institutions to govern Northern Ireland.

A very big question mark now hangs over the strength of the Good Friday agreement.

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Last updated: 18 September 2016