Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Parties Win Places At Ireland Peace Meeting

BELFAST -- While Protestant and Catholic hardliners showed strength in this week's election of negotiators to Northern Ireland peace talks, voters also approved some new faces who speak the language of compromise.

The test is whether they will be able to move the stubborn representatives of the old guard, who have presided so unsuccessfully over the past quarter-century of bloodshed and stalemate.

"They're going to have to take us seriously. In fact we think we'll probably hold the balance of power in those talks," said elated newcomer Monica McWilliams, a University of Ulster lecturer who six weeks ago helped found the Women's Coalition -- newest of 10 victorious parties in Thursday's balloting. The vote results were announced Friday.

McWilliams will represent her coalition of Protestant and Catholic women in a new 110-member debating forum and, more importantly, in separate negotiations on Northern Ireland's future due to start June 10. The goal will be to strike a compromise between Protestants determined to preserve Northern Ireland's union with Britain, and Catholics who are equally as resolved to break that link and unify the province with the rest of Ireland.

The British and Irish governments agree that the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party should be barred from the talks without a new cease-fire -- this despite Sinn Fein's surprising surge in support to 116,377 votes, or 15.5 percent, fourth in the poll.

The moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, which opposes the IRA but, like Sinn Fein, wants to see British rule ended and Northern Ireland unified with the rest of Ireland, won 21.4 percent of the vote.

"Sinn Fein secured a very strong mandate and the question on everyone's lips is: Do we have a straight road now to talks?'' said Barry McElduff, one of 17 Sinn Fein activists elected to the new forum. Sinn Fein, for its part, is refusing to sit in the debating forum because it will have a Protestant majority.

At the opposite end of the scale, the Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party -- committed to shunning Sinn Fein and demanding the IRA's surrender -- increased its Protestant votes to 141,421, or 18.8 percent, for third place. The establishment Ulster Unionist Party saw its support drop to 24.2 percent. Unlike the four biggest parties with their six-digit vote figures, McWilliams' coalition managed a humble 7,731 votes, or 1.0 percent. But that was enough in an election plan that rewarded the top 10 parties with seats in the forum.

In the forum, McWilliams will be one of just two Women's Coalition members. But each party will send roughly the same number of representatives into the negotiations -- and all are supposed to be afforded equal time and respect.

The Women's Coalition will be joined in the forum by one other small new peace-oriented party composed of both Catholics and Protestants -- a group of Labor Party socialists, with 0.9 percent of the votes, as well as the Alliance Party, the only established group to achieve cross-community support --but only 6.5 percent of the votes this time.

The new politicians in the middle seem agreed on one point: The IRA must renew its cease-fire for there to be progress. If that happens, they say, pressure will build on Paisley and others on the Protestant side to negotiate with their arch-rivals.

"This is our last chance in Northern Ireland," McWilliams said.