THAT it should have come to this - that almost exactly ten years after Britain and Ireland signed the Joint Downing Street Declaration on Northern Ireland, and after years of patient and largely constructive progress towards peace, the people of Northern Ireland should vote for a bigotted throw-back to old hatreds as the First Minister of their devolved government. So much for all the good will, all the concessions, all the impovement in the quality of life of Northern Ireland - basically, the truth is that too many Protestants prefer to hate and fear their Catholic neighbours. Alright: the foregoing is unfair, simplistic. But many people on both sides of the Northern Ireland divide who have worked unceasingly for the peace process in the past decade may well be experiencing just such feelings this weekend. Has the positive work of those years been thrown away? Probably not. Appalling as it may be to see a man of Ian Paisley's kind at the top of the poll, his victory is not the whole story. He won 28 seats in the Assembly but the other three parties - all supporters of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement - won 67. David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, widely thought to have been trounced, in fact lost only one seat. Mr Paisley's victory came from mopping-up seven seats previously held by a variety of small and insignificant parties. These considerations should be kept in mind as longdrawnout negotiations begin to see whether a devolved government can somehow be re-instated.
As matter stands this depends on an agreement on power sharing between Mr Paisley as First Minister and Gerry Adams as Second Minister. The prospect seems somewhat less likely than that of seeing Ariel Sharon shake hands with Yassir Arafat.