No coincidence

The surge in the vote for the DUP and Sinn Fein has been dangerously presented in the media as a polarisation of public opinion in the Six Counties.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact that Sinn Fein is a resurgent political party is a product of its peace strategy, a new assertiveness among northern nationalists and the subsequent decline of the SDLP.

The rise of anti-Agreement unionism is a reaction to this process, with unionist opposition to the Agreement growing in tandem with support for Sinn Fein. Unnerved by the fear of change and the perceived loss of influence, the wagons have been circled against the perceived foe.

Meanwhile, the veneer of righteousness had faded from the Reverend Ian Paisley. His outbursts of anti-Sinn Fein (read Catholic) rhetoric must make even his devoted followers quail with unease. At a time when cool heads are called for, the 77-year-old is still using the rhetoric of the seventies.

But the DUP, above all, is not immune to the trappings of power. In terms of popular vote, it is now the largest party in the Six Counties. This can command respect, as a boorish Nigel Dodds tetchily demanded from an unfortunate TV commentator last night. But it also brings responsibilities.

The DUP now represents the unionists of the Shankill Road through its elected representative in West Belfast, Diane Dodds. But how will the party lead that distressed community? With more bombast and pulpit-banging? Or with a reasonable strategy for ending its dispute with the nationalist community?

The DUP's stated policy of refusing to negotiate with Sinn Fein, the second largest party behind the DUP, is childish and outdated.

It is almost ten years since the IRA declared its ceasefire. It is now past time for unionism to respond with a ceasefire of its own.

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© 2003 Irish Republican News