THE DEPRESSING returns from Northern Ireland's elections indicate continued political stalemate and further bloodshed. The vote shows the two sides drifting steadily farther apart. Five seats were won by the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, whose principal tactic is the indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population. All of the Protestant candidates made absolutely clear their refusal to share any element of power with the Catholics. Replying in kind, all the Catholics declared that they will refuse even to take their seats.

The tragic paradox of Northern Irish politics is that both sides are gripped by the psychology of a threatened minority. The two-thirds of the province's people who are Protestant think of themselves as a small outpost on the island of Ireland, and believe obsessively that the smallest concession to the Catholics would swiftly lead to their absorption into the Republic of Ireland, in which they would be the powerless few. The Catholics argue from an endless catalogue of the discrimination that they have suffered at Protestant hands.

The case of Northern Ireland invites reflection on the peculiar politics of islands that have experienced heavy emigration over the generations. Perhaps the families who remain tend to be those to whom the old ways are the most profoundly important, including all the old fears and all the old hatreds. One also thinks of Cyprus, Crete and Sicily, where the Mafia originated as a peasants' resistance movement against an oppressive nobility and continues to draw on ancient loyalties to prosper as a purely criminal organization. The IRA seems to be evolving in a similar direction, with the threats and repressions of the ethnic Protestants nourishing its political support.

Northern Ireland and its elections provide a reminder that democratic politics always requires a base of good will or, at the least, acknowledgement that peaceful cohabitation is better than the alternative. When that minimal degree of tolerance is absent, no power can impose the machinery of parliamentary democracy and make it work. The province, more deeply divided than ever, now confronts a future amidst a failed economy, with unemployment at 20 percent, and little hope for -- or, apparently, any interest in -- reconciliation.