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Democracy Is An Awkward Thing

The voting system in Northern Ireland is complicated… a system of proportional representation that takes days to work out and is supposed to reflect accurately the wishes of those who voted. But it worked pretty well last week…. and today the verdict of the people of Northern Ireland is clear enough.

On the Catholic side, they voted for Sinn Fein and its leader, Gerry Adams, who are seen to have done a good job, to have won the negotiating game, to have gained what they want from the peace process.

On the Protestant side, they turned away from the moderate party led by David Trimble, who's been seen to have lost in that process -- and switched to Ian Paisley and his mates, who are regarded as tougher and harder, people who will fight the Protestant corner. In the judgments of those voters, the IRA got a lot and gave up very little.

Northern Ireland voters were supposed to be so pleased with the result of the peace process, that they were expected to turn away from extremism; all become friends ... and vote for the centre parties. What we have instead is a Northern Ireland split along religious lines, the precise opposite of what the process was supposed to achieve.

You might think they are misguided, and so might Tony Blair and George Bush, but that is their judgment. Voters don't necessarily do what we all think is sensible or right. Democracy is like that. And I fear the same problem is going to occur in Iraq when elections are finally held. Those elections are seen by our leaders as the great solution.

From where we sit, surely the people there will be so delighted with the removal of Saddam that they will vote for sensible middle ground parties which want to get on with the West? Our troops will leave, democracy will flourish, and that will be that. But what if those Iraqi voters don't do what we all want them to do? What if they vote for parties which are going to fight hardest for them, for parties which as a priority want the Americans and British out? What if they vote for religious intolerance and military muscle?

What do we do then? In Iraq, as in Northern Ireland, democracy can be an awkward thing.

By Peter Allen