DUBLIN — Leaders of Irish political party Sinn Féin were among hundreds who gathered in Belfast on Tuesday for the funeral of Bobby Storey, a senior figure in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who died nine days ago aged 64. After the funeral was criticised on social media for seeming to breaching rules meant to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus in Northern Ireland – which cap funeral attendances at 10 people – some of Sinn Féin’s political rivals took aim. Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), said at a Tuesday press conference that “no person” is “above the regulations and guidance we have laid down on how we combat Covid-19.” Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) parliamentarian Gregory Campbell called for “police action,” claiming that Sinn Féin leaders “showed no respect” for the restrictions – which it previously said should be applied without exemption. A police spokeswoman later told The Belfast Telegraph newspaper that officers will review footage of the funeral. Though Sinn Féin shares control of Northern Ireland’s devolved administration with the DUP, the two parties are ideological rivals. The DUP – and Swann’s UUP – oppose Sinn Féin’s aim of ending British rule in Northern Ireland.
DUBLIN — In 1987, at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland, loyalist paramilitaries told Ireland’s Prime Minister Charles Haughey that British intelligence wanted him dead. Among the Irish government archives released today is a letter from the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force in which they claimed to Haughey that “in 1985 we were approached by a MI5 officer attached to the NIO [Northern Ireland Office] and based in Lisburn, Alex Jones was his supposed name,” the UVF said. “He asked us to execute you.” The UVF said they turned down the request, telling the Taoiseach (prime minister) that “We refused to do it. We were asked would we accept responsibility if you were killed. We refused.”
CASTLEBAR — Voters in Ireland delivered a stinging rebuke to governing parties in elections that reflected concerns that the country’s economic recovery was not being widely felt. In an echo of the sort of voter anger being heard in the United States this year, anti-establishment parties and independent candidates made significant gains, winning about 25% of the vote combined. Sinn Fein, the democratic socialist party that is linked to the Irish Republican Army, won 14% of the vote, making it the country’s third largest party. A center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Enda Kenny will not retain power after seeing its share of the vote fall from 56% in 2011 elections to around 32% in voting Friday, with several seats still to be counted Monday. With no party or alliance close to winning enough seats to form a government, it is unclear who will lead Ireland’s next government. Several government ministers lost their parliamentary seats in the vote, although the prime minister held on. Speaking to media after retaining his seat, Kenny said, “Democracy is exciting, but merciless when it kicks in.”
CASTLEBAR — It was a home crowd, a backslapping gathering in the town in western Ireland where Prime Minister Enda Kenny made his first foray into national politics four decades ago. But despite the warm campaign trail welcome, Kenny could not resist a dig at “whingers” in his hometown, who, despite Ireland’s economic growth — at more than 6% last year, the highest in Europe — nonetheless “find it very difficult to see any good anywhere any time.” Coming less than a week before Friday’s parliamentary elections, Kenny’s undiplomatic outburst astonished many in a country where, despite recent growth, many people are struggling seven years after a devastating economic collapse that put 300,000 people out of work — a parallel collapse to the U.S. subprime catastrophe — and which prompted devastating cuts to health and social spending. Voters in Castlebar had mixed reactions to the prime minister’s outburst. Declan Scully said he knew several former construction workers who have been out of work since the 2008 crash, when the “Celtic Tiger,” as Ireland’s roaring economy was known, went from being one of the most successful in Europe to a near basket case. As a result, he found Kenny’s comments “a bit disrespectful.”
DUBLIN — Irish political punditry has long been something of an echo-chamber, so it was not much of a surprise when a tired default acronym got another airing over the past few weeks. “GUBU”, coined by the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, former UN diplomat, Irish government minister and editor of The Observer, stands for “Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented.” There is nothing, however, unprecedented about its over-use, as the acronym is invariably fired out whenever something controversial or unusual takes place in Irish politics. Inevitably, GUBU is the shorthand of choice, irrespective of hyperbole or appropriateness. The bizarre death-throes of the current government led by Brian Cowen and his party, Fianna Fáil, are as close to GUBU as Ireland has seen since the term first entered the political lexicon back in 1982 – when Ireland’s economy was spinning through another crisis.
DUBLIN — Northern Ireland MP Iris Robinson’s affair with Kirk McCambley, now 21, prompted her to announce last month that she would be stepping down from politics as she seeks treatment for depression. Robinson, 60, is the wife of Peter Robinson, first minister in Northern Ireland’s regional government and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-British political party in Northern Ireland. The couple are to be investigated by Northern Ireland’s committee on standards and privileges after Iris Robinson admitted she secured £50,000 ($81,400) from two developers to help McCambley set up a restaurant business in Belfast. The fallout from the scandal has led to Peter Robinson temporarily stepping down as First Minister, but remaining as DUP leader.
When Irish Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) Brian Cowen joins political leaders from Northern Ireland in Washington for next week’s St Patrick’s Day jamboree, President Barack Obama will hopefully show them more courtesy than he did UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week. He should, because rather than bore the new president with wonkish jabbering about the merits of the G20, the Irish will give Obama a spin on the time machine, a Tardis ride to an older Ireland assumed to be but an artifact. Given the context, that all might come off as somewhat glib. An old anecdote tells of a British pilot, making his landing announcement on a flight from London to Belfast, sometime in the early 1970s. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are commencing our descent into Belfast. Please set your watches back 300 years” – in reference to Northern Ireland’s seemingly anachronistic sectarian disputes.
DUBLIN — The resignation of Ian Paisley Jr. has prompted speculation that his octogenarian father, Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley Sr., will step down as well. With his father at his side, the younger Mr. Paisley quit his post as junior minister last week over links to a real estate developer from whom he bought a house. Known to locals as “Young Paisley,” he has not been cited for any crime nor has there been anything more than an implication of something inappropriate afoot. Still, the scandal was enough to force him out of the cabinet, although he will continue to serve in the national legislature.
“Tiocfaidh ár lá!” is a well-known Irish rallying cry in Sinn Féin neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. Translated into English as “Our Day Will Come,” this piece of political eschatology points to the day when Northern Ireland will form part of a unified all-Ireland state joined to the Republic of Ireland, which takes up most of the island. But after a dismal performance in the 24 May parliamentary election in the Republic, Sinn Féin’s meager four seats in the new Irish Parliament (out of 166 up-for-grabs) means that the day envisioned remains somewhat distant. While Sinn Féin’s role in Northern Ireland is relatively well-known, and its ambitions to merge the mini-province with its larger neighbor to the south are long-held, less clear to outside observers is its presence in the Republic of Ireland and the centrality of its Dublin strategy for achieving its aims in Belfast. Sinn Féin had hoped to gain 10 to 12 seats in the Republic – potentially enough to make itself a viable coalition partner for the larger parties. Becoming even a minor coalition partner in a sovereign state – which has been Europe’s most dynamic economy for almost a decade – has been a long-standing ambition for the party.
DUBLIN — A report released last week gave a remarkably positive assessment of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) self-emasculation, 14 months after it declared an end to its three-decade war against Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK. The report, released by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), an Irish-British intergovernmental watchdog set up to monitor Ireland’s paramilitary groups, stated: “It [the IRA] is now firmly set on a political strategy, eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime. In this process there has been a loss of paramilitary capability.” However, various vested interests on the part of all protagonists may combine to scupper a potential deal this week, as the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s main political parties discuss reviving the devolved government set up after the 1998 peace agreement.