Northern Ireland : a lasting peace in sight? 

English-speaking Union January 29 2004



MC. Considère-Charon

Professeur à l'Université de Franche Comté

Lettre de synthèse Robert Schuman n° 146



Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were held on 26 November 2003 after being postponed twice already this year. As it was planned 108 members of the legislative Assembly or MLAs were elected. But they were actually elected to a defunct Assembly or an assembly without substance because the parties required to make devolution work can't or won't do a deal.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was designed by the Belfast Agreement, more commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement which was signed on April 10 1998., and ratified through a referendum on May 22nd 1998.

 The Good Friday Agreement which contains three strands established two institutions in strand one :

-An elected Northern Ireland Assembly of 108 members

six elected by PR from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies with power to legislate in such areas as agriculture and education, environment, health, regional development and culture.

-An Executive elected by the Assembly


The first election took place on June 25 1998 some time after the Belfast Agreement was signed. In the 1998 election the two largest parties were two moderate parties on both sides of the divide,  the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) which got 28 seats  and the SDLP on the nationalist side with 24 seats.


The process of government formation between the parties is reduced to a crude mathematical formula. Every party that reaches a specific level of support is entitled to name as many members of its party to government and claim a number of ministries. The number of Ministers is to be ten, in addition to the previously elected First and Deputy First Ministers. As a result of the 1998 elections, Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP (Social and Democratic Labour Party), Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though he was subsequently replaced by his party's new leader, Mark Durkan.


Application of d'Hondt proportional representation  resulted in the leaders of the four largest parties nominating, in turn, one of their colleagues to take a number of  portfolios. The Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly.

 Consequently the Assembly elected in May 1998 produced three Ministers from the Ulster Unionist Party + the First Minister (28 Assembly seats), three from the SDLP + the Deputy First Minister  (24 seats), two from the DUP (20 seats) and two from Sinn Féin (18 seats). Alliance, with six seats, and all other parties were excluded.


Things were meant to function in a normal way. However over the last five years, the Northern Ireland institutions have been operating at reduced capacity and under the continuous threat of suspension. This situation was largely due to the persistent refusal of the IRA to make any significant gesture towards complete decommissioning which was one of the major requirements of the Good Friday Agreement (see agreement p.24)

There has been many delays, threats, deadlines that haven’t been met and in spite of all the efforts of the British, the Irish and the Americans as well as the three secretaries for Northern Ireland. (even though the IRA made a few gestures towards decommissioning last November 2001) .



Consequently the Assembly and its Executive were suspended in October 2002 and dissolved in April 2003, What also aggravated the situation was  the alleged discovery of an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the Stormont government. When the last elections took place, the province was under direct rule which means it was run once more run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy and a British ministerial team answerable to him.



The 2003 results





1st Preference
Votes         %

% Change
from 1998



























Other parties :

Progressive Unionist party : 1

United Kingdom Unionist party : 1

Independent : 1

Northern Ireland Women's Coalition : 0



The  election was marked by the victory of the radical parties on both sides, the  most aggressive defenders of nationalist and unionist "communities". The parties that came first and second at the 2004 elections were the Democratic Unionist Party ( DUP)  and Sinn Fein which are both radical with a sectarian heritage. Sinn Fein has kept a historical link with the IRA while DUP's leader Ian Paisley has persistently opposed the agreement along with any concession to the catholic community.


There has been a swing to the anti-agreement faction of the unionist camp

The party led by  Reverend Ian Paisley, increased its share of the 108 seats in the Assembly from 20 to 30, it has gained 10 seats,  taking seats from the minority unionist parties such as the UK Unionist Party and the Progressive Unionist Party. This means that the DUP has become the main voice of unionism. Sinn Fein won 24 seats, an increase of six, all taken from the catholic-based Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).


What is also significant is the loss of support for smaller pro-Agreement parties such as the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which lost both their seats, while the Alliance Party made no gains. Both advance themselves as non-sectarian and dedicated to bridging the gap between Protestants and Catholics.



Among the explanations for such dramatic change and such polarised results there has been the growing popularity of the two radical parties, the views they hold on the constitutional question, the fact that they may claim well organised constituency representatives, the electoral system and the political background.


The parties went into the assembly election against the background of a deadlocked process. The political institutions were suspended in October 2002 amid allegations of IRA intelligence-gathering in the Stormont government. Things had been carefully planned by the British and Irish authorities. Before the elections took place there was supposed to be a commitment  by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), to make a further step towards disarmament. Shortly after, the head of the international body on weapons decommissioning in Northern Ireland, General John de Chastelain, was due to produce a report confirming the IRA had agreed to a compromise on disarming. There would have to be been then a commitment by the major parties to forming a power-sharing executive. The major problem with decommissioning was to be overcome.


However what happened was that the IRA did not deliver a clear statement on the decommissioning of weapons which caused those carefully planned events to fall through. The consequence is that the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were held in the absence of a commitment by the major parties to forming a power-sharing executive.


The next question is  why were the Ulster and the SDLP which seemed to be natural partners in government overtaken by the radical parties?

One must not fail to notice that Sinn Féin and the DUP have emerged as more popular among the electorate while the moderate parties are faced with various problems. The swing to the anti-Agreement faction of the unionist camp embodied by the DUP was quite unexpected because people have probably underestimated the problems the Ulster Unionist Party was confronted with.  UUP's leader, David Trimble, has been very much contested within his party whose more radical wing embodied by Jeffrey Donaldson has gained ground among those who once supported the agreement.


As regards the growing popularity of Sinn Fein one should not fail to notice that if the nationalist community may has become more radical, SDLP on the other end has largely suffered from a lack of leadership. John Hume who was the charismatic leader of the party has withdrawn form the political scene due to health problems.


The electoral system is also being questioned

A major problem with the present system STV or single transferable vote is what political scientists call the district magnitude (DM). This is the number of seats in each constituency. Where it is high, proportionality is high. Northern Ireland is divided into 18 six seat constituencies. With high proportionality, in divided societies you often see small extremist parties coming to the fore. Whereas the first-past-the-post or plurality system used in UK parliamentary elections would give incentives for moderate parties to attract support from both communities and build cross-community links. Overall the parties perceived as the most aggressive defenders of nationalist and unionist “communities” triumphed.


This electoral system chosen for the Belfast Agreement obviously disadvantages the parties which refuse to designate as either like the Alliance party and Northern Ireland Women's coalition and therefore perpetuates the divide between the nationalist and the unionist communities, which seems to confirm the idea that the whole basis of the agreement was to institutionalise the divisions between the two communities.



These results marked by the success of the DUP have generated a huge political crisis. The political geography of the North is being changed as never before.

Sinn Fein and Alliance were the only parties which were not squeezed out by the growth of the DUP. As a result of these elections the political system is paralysed. The Assembly is currently suspended. The agreement is in jeopardy.

So is there a solution? Can the deadlock be broken?

In other words why can't the The Good Friday Agreement be properly implemented?


The Good Friday agreement was achieved on the basic principle of cross-community support. This principle has been threatened by the emergence of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin as Northern Ireland's largest two parties. The Democratic Unionist Party, with 30 seats, is entitled to fill the first minister's position, while Sinn Féin, as the largest nationalist party, should fill the deputy first minister post. Beyond the traditional divide that opposes nationalists and unionists there is an even more severe rift between those who signed the pro-agreement camp and the rejectionist camp embodied by the DUP.


However it requires a great deal of imagination to envisage an administration being formed between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. In other words it is unlikely that Ian Paisley can be moved to a position of accommodation with republicans.

Mr Durkan called on pro-agreement parties to meet in early January to agree a unified position on the review. All the parties that signed the Agreement said that the Belfast Agreement was not dead and that there is still a majority of the population in favour of the agreement.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP have insisted the Good Friday Agreement will not be renegotiated.

The position of Sinn Fein is that it will not allow the DUP  to "wreck" the Agreement

They say that the British and the Irish government must not be paralysed by the DUP's obstruction and that they must fulfil their commitment and save the Agreement


Martin McGuinness from Sinn Féin's  insists that almost half a million people voted for pro-agreement parties. That is 70% of the total electorate. Their voice must be heard and not drowned out by the rejectionist camp who gained around 30 per cent of the votes." The republicans also claim that the problem of IRA weapons should be dealt with along with the weapons of unionists paramilitaries and British state forces.


The SDLP's position is clear. Looking ahead to the review, Mr Durkan added: "The lessons of the last five years must be learnt. The UUP demanded decommissioning as a precondition. Sinn Féin denied that decommissioning was a requirement. The result?

"Five years in which time and trust was lost, five years of bickering that only fed the DUP's vote. We cannot let the same happen in this review. We need to build a strong and determined pro-agreement axis that will protect the agreement from those who would tear it apart.


The Alliance party wants to change the system that requires the support of a majority of nationalists and a majority of unionists to elect First and Deputy First Ministers.

It argues this encourages decision-making on sectarian lines and wants it replaced by a weighted majority system.

The Alliance Party is also pressing for a change on the basis that the existing arrangements – which require members to label themselves as unionist or nationalist - disenfranchise its members who regard themselves as neither. This was also the position of Northern Ireland Women's Coalition which was completely wiped out and lost its two seats at the election.

It also says the Assembly should be cut to 80 members. It calls for an increase in the scope of North/South co-operation. It calls for an increase in the scope of North/South co-operation.

Today's crisis reinforces the position of the DUP which always opposed the Agreement.

and now asks for a renegociation


The position of the DUP is that the Belfast Agreement must be renegotiated to create a new settlement acceptable to unionists.

DUP's deputy leader Peter Robinson warned Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams that the time has come to choose between guns and government. He said the DUP will not take accept stunts, instalments and incremental gestures because completion means completion. The position of the DUP is that the Belfast Agreement was rooted in the principle of dual consent by a majority of both communities in Northern Ireland; and that on November 26th the consent of the unionist community was formally withdrawn. the DUP is expected to press for radical changes to the agreement including a reduction in the size of the Assembly and the Stormont executive. At Stormont Castle in December 1972, the Rev Ian Paisley also demanded drastic security measures including military courts, capital punishment and the "domination" of nationalist areas by the British army. He also claimed for Dublin recognition of Northern Ireland's UK status.


The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, is in a very difficult position

First his party was overtaken by the Democratic Unionist Party which has become the main voice of unionism. Then  a number of UUP  representatives have defected to the DUP including the former Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson along with two MLAs (Members of the Local Assembly) Norah Beare, and the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA Arlene Foster. It means that the DUP which captured 30 seats at the election has now increased its share of Stormont seats to 33 which now puts the party nine seats ahead of the UUP which has only 24 seats.

There is a very complex situation where you find the DUP on one side saying yes we will renegotiate the Belfast Agreement," and on the other side  Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Yes wing of Ulster Unionism. Saying : "Oh, no, you won't," .



What are the prospects for Ulster?

The official review of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement  will get under way on February 3rd. The British and the Irish government  will try and save the multi party Agreement that took so long to be reached The problem is how to implement the power-sharing process.

The position of the Northern Secretary  Paul Murphy is that  the Belfast Agreement will remain "fundamentally unchanged" because the majority of the electorate supported it.

On the Irish side, the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen will be centrally involved: it will be a challenge for them, given the demands of Ireland's EU presidency of the European Union which started on January 1ST


There are three options which the Dublin and London authorities have envisaged

  1. A compromise between DUP and Sinn Fein. The British and Irish authorities are actually trying to chart a route that in the next months or possibly years might lead to a compromise between the DUP and Sinn Fein. The only possible compromise here is that the DUP interprets the review as a renegociation.

  2. An agreement between Sinn Fein and UUP. Sinn Féin is still holding out the possibility of a deal with Ulster Unionist leader, Mr David Trimble, despite the Democratic Unionist Party's victory.

  3. A new election that might allow the UUP and the SDLP  to recover ground


In any case there is a danger politics will remain stalled for some time to come. There will probably be a long period of direct rule during which an Anglo-Irish intergovernmental

Conference will be dealing with the future of the province.



In the last 5½ years what hurt the agreement most was not the attacks on it by anti-agreement elements. Instead, what damaged it deepest was the inability of pro-agreement parties to work together and settle their divisions. The last elections were to pave the way for another significant achievement : the stabilization of devolved government in Northern Ireland and the Assembly, the executive and the North-south ministerial Council.

The latest developments with the victory of the DUP have proved how difficult it is to achieve due to the lack of trust between the two camps. However anti-agreement forces are still operating and causing a great deal of damage. There has been examples recently of bitter sectarianism that has gripped the province. Criminality whether paramilitary or not is still plaguing Northern Ireland.


However the vast bulk of the people in Northern Ireland and all the mainstream political parties are supporting the Good Friday Agreement and the new democratic institutions that came out of it. There are also some signs of progress. For example last year's death toll came to ten which was the lowest tally for many years. When dealing with politics in Northern Ireland let’s look at the glass as half full and not half-empty!



Projet Albion (c) 2000-2004 Lauric Henneton 
Irish Economy (c) 2001-2004 Vanessa Boullet 
Mise à jour: 24/03/2004