DERRY — Speaking on BBC TV over the weekend, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble called on voters to support “centrist” parties in Northern Ireland in Britain’s forthcoming general election.
Trimble’s call amounted to asking Northern Ireland’s unionist population to vote for the more moderate nationalist party, the Social, Democratic, and Labour Party (SDLP), instead of the UUP’s rivals within unionism, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The SDLP is regarded as the moderate alternative to Sinn Féin – the political party linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – while the UUP sees itself as having a similar profile vis-à-vis the DUP.
However, in an attempt to outflank Sinn Féin, the SDLP recently released a strategic paper outlining its proposals on Irish unity, which would see Northern Ireland merge with its larger neighbor, the Irish Republic, which covers most of the island of Ireland.
Analysts believe that Sinn Féin and the DUP could overwhelm their self-styled moderate opponents in the forthcoming election, exacerbating political polarization in Northern Ireland.
The UUP and the SDLP have traditionally been the two largest parties on their respective sides of Northern Ireland’s national-religious divide.
Unionist disenchantment with the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement and the failure of Trimble, who shared the Nobel peace prize for his role in putting together the deal, to get the IRA to disarm, give the hardline arguments of the DUP an added attraction.
The SDLP meanwhile, has shed support to Sinn Féin, whose slick and disciplined electoral PR machine has captured the imagination of many young voters unable to remember the years of IRA violence in Northern Ireland.
However, Sinn Féin has been under enormous political pressure recently, due to the fallout from a major bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast. Both actions have been blamed on the IRA.
Trimble said the two centrist parties from the unionist and nationalist communities held the key to progress, and urged voters to “reinvigorate” the center by backing the two main moderate groups in the general election.
Trimble’s call was echoed by SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who has been joined on the campaign trail by senior politicians from Dublin, including members of the Irish government.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams attacked Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, Irish Justice Minster Michael McDowell, and Irish Labour Party leader Pat Rabbitte, who have visited or will visit key constituencies to support SDLP candidates. Adams has made a formal complaint to the Irish government, which has led the political attacks on Sinn Féin over recent months.
Sinn Féin has five elected parliamentarians in the Irish Republic. Although there is no election planned there for another two years, Sinn Féin has increased its support in the Republic in recent years – something viewed with suspicion by many in Dublin’s political establishment.
Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed, most of them civilians, as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republican paramilitaries, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalist counterparts who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded into Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force and were regularly targeted by the IRA.Show