Citizens of the United Kingdom will be voting in two very different elections on Thursday – one in Britain over issues like the invasion of Iraq, immigration, education, and economic policy, and a second one in Northern Ireland
DERRY — When the Queen’s subjects go to the polls on Thursday, they will essentially be voting in two very different elections. The three main political parties on the British mainland have campaigned on issues such as the legality of the US-British invasion of Iraq, immigration policy, education, and leadership personalities, while the polls in Northern Ireland will feature an entirely different set of actors and factors.
In April, a delegation from the recently elected provincial legislature of Basra, Iraq visited Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s two largest cities, to learn about Northern Ireland’s peace process. For the prime minister’s advisers, the visit from Basra is an opportunity to put a positive spin on Tony Blair’s unpopular decision to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq
Drawing parallels between Iraq and Northern Ireland allows Downing Street to deflect attention from the original rationale for the attack – Iraq’s alleged banned weapons stockpiles – and to recast the invasion as an effort to replace dictatorship with democracy.
To others, it represents a measure of how far Northern Ireland has come since the quarter-century of civil conflict ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) peace deal. But just as many in Britain dispute both the morality of and legal basis for the invasion of Iraq, many people in Northern Ireland question the view that their peace serves as a model for societies emerging from violence elsewhere.
With a society composed of two national-religious groupings with divergent aspirations, politics in Northern Ireland continues largely unaffected by the issues that will decide who occupies No. 10 Downing Street after Thursday’s general elections. The elections in Northern Ireland and Britain are about as far removed from each other as Belfast and Basra.
Devolved government, equality, weapons decommissioning, cross-border cooperation, and policing are the most important issues in the Irish campaign.
However, all parties are pursuing diametrically opposed models for Northern Ireland’s constitutional and existential future. Within each national-religious camp, the election will be won by the parties that can best attain the objectives and meet the aspirations of their sectarian constituency.
The issue of policing, for example, is politically loaded in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin – the political party linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – seeks immediate devolved control over the police as a precursor to cooperation with all aspects of law enforcement, while Protestant unionists see this as part of a broader strategy to loosen British rule and push Northern Ireland closer to a single all-Ireland state.
It would be surprising if any of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats were won by anyone other than a representative of the four main political parties. Of those four, two – Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) – are pro-Irish “nationalist” or “republican” groups, while the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) claim the affiliation of Northern Ireland’s majority pro-British unionists and loyalists, who make up around 56 per cent of the population.
Nationalists and republicans are largely Roman Catholics who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland. Unionists are mostly Protestants descended from 17th-century English and Scottish settlers, and want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
The term “nationalist” is often used as shorthand for those who support a united Ireland, but do not support the use of political violence in the form of the IRA. Republicans are nationalists who in the past have supported the IRA campaign and now support its political wing, Sinn Féin, which seeks an all-Ireland republic.
Unionists, on the other hand, are generally middle-class Protestants who have traditionally supported the UUP, although many have switched to the DUP in recent years. “Loyalist” generally means working-class urban Protestant, linked to paramilitaries such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) or the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), but likely to vote DUP, although not all loyalists necessarily share the fundamentalist Protestant religio-political ethos of DUP leader Ian Paisley.
To portray Northern Ireland as being trapped in antiquated notions of nation and identity is reductionist and unfair to the many people dedicated to breaking the stranglehold of nation, religion, identity, and mistrust that has characterized Northern Ireland politics and society since the outbreak of violence in 1969, or since the arrival of the first Scottish settlers in 1608.
Moreover, religion acts as a historically grounded marker of identity rather than a driver of political division in itself. Doctrinal issues are generally irrelevant to political discourse.
On the Catholic-nationalist side, Sinn Féin is a Socialist republican entity, while the SDLP, as its name suggests, is ideologically at home in the company of European “third-way” politics.
However, all these facets are secondary to the national-constitutional question – which may explain why SDLP leader Mark Durkan snubbed UUP leader David Trimble’s request that their self-styled “moderate center” parties form a cross-community voluntary coalition to regain Northern Ireland’s devolved government – itself elected separately from the coming general election.
Veteran campaigner and journalist Éamonn McCann will stand in the election on behalf of the Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA). McCann offers an alternative to what he describes as “tribal politics”, as represented by the four main parties. But most observers believe that McCann’s chances of success are limited.
Rather than see people in Northern Ireland as riven by ethno-nationalist rivalry, it is more productive to see politics in Northern Ireland as trapped by a well-meaning but flawed peace agreement that has ensured continuing bi-communal division and misunderstanding. T
he ability to find common ground has been undermined by mistrust and deception that favors the extremists on either side of the national divide, as post-GFA politics in Northern Ireland retains its zero-sum culture – characterized as “scorpions in a bottle” by political analyst John Darby.
Moderates on both sides cannot convince undecided voters that a ballot cast for the moderates will be reciprocated rather than taken advantage of by “the other side”. Thursday’s election may see the collapse of what is regarded as the moderate center in Northern Irish politics.
With the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland was meant to move slowly towards a new era of cross-community harmony. The IRA is no longer bombing the financial district of London, and the UFF is no longer shooting Catholic civilians.
Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a return to violence is unimaginable for a part of the world with strong diaspora ties to the US.
However, Northern Ireland is more politically polarized than ever, lacking even what conflict resolution theorists call “negative peace”. The GFA was controversial from the outset. The DUP remained formally opposed to the agreement and did not take part in the negotiations that created it, but since becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland, has worked with the British and Irish governments on a renegotiated devolution deal.
Just over 50 per cent of Protestants voted for the GFA, and Protestant support has been in decline since it was signed. Those, like the DUP, who were opposed from the outset, saw the GFA as imbalanced, benefiting nationalists and appeasing Sinn Féin-IRA. Still others are more comfortable with direct rule from London than with devolved power-sharing with nationalists-republicans.
Protestants and Unionists who changed their mind about the GFA have acted out of frustration with the continuing refusal of the IRA to disarm and disband. Support for Trimble’s UUP has plummeted, as the DUP has successfully portrayed Trimble as a Sinn Féin dupe who is soft on the IRA. Other evidence suggests that pro-GFA Protestants are disenchanted because the devolved institutions have been suspended repeatedly. Logically, therefore, a functioning local executive would woo these people back to supporting the pro-agreement UUP.
As the nationalist party that eschewed violence throughout the conflict, the SDLP was always going to be vulnerable to Sinn Féin operating in a context where IRA guns were silent. In the 1980s and 1990s, the SDLP worked to bring Sinn Féin into politics, thereby creating suitable conditions for stopping the IRA campaign.
However, the continuing presence of the IRA as a bargaining chip has granted Sinn Féin added weight in political negotiations, which in turn contributes to its political robustness as perceived by Catholic voters in Northern Ireland. As Blair once said, the SDLP’s “biggest problem is that they don’t have any guns”.
Rather than work with the UUP to posit a strong cross-community moderate center, the SDLP recently published a position paper on a united Ireland, hoping to stem the nationalist voter tide to Sinn Féin. Back to the subject of guns, a negative peace involves the bare minimum needed to ensure post-conflict political settlement: the removal of weaponry, demilitarization, and the disbandment of militias.
However, Northern Ireland still has paramilitaries – on both sides – contrary to both the letter and spirit of the GFA.
The controversy surrounding the presence of one of those paramilitary groups has overshadowed this election – but does not appear set to alter its outcome.
A number of bizarre and sensational developments over the past few months have added to already raised stakes for 5 May. In December 2004, the most recent attempt to restore Northern Ireland’s devolved legislature and executive failed, ostensibly over the means to be used to verify IRA disarmament.
The DUP wanted photographs of the process, which the IRA regarded as an unnecessary humiliation. Sinn Féin feared the photos would be used by the DUP as visual propaganda in this election.
However, this was mild compared with what was to come.
On 20 December 2004, €33.5 million was stolen from a Belfast bank in a sophisticated operation that lasted almost two days. On 9 January this year, the head of Northern Ireland’s Police Service stated publicly that he believed the IRA was responsible. The Irish and British governments concurred. No arrests have been made, nor has any evidence linking the robbery to the IRA been produced. Moreover, an opinion poll showed that 60 per cent of people in Northern Ireland were not sure that the IRA was responsible for the robbery. However, almost all analysts concluded that only the IRA was capable of the robbery.
Sinn Féin’s much-vaunted PR machine was in a tailspin when another, potentially more serious crisis broke.
On 31 January, Robert McCartney, a Catholic from a pro- Sinn Féin enclave in east Belfast, was murdered outside a Belfast pub. IRA members were involved.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Mo Mowlam famously referred to such killings as “internal housekeeping”, a necessary by-product of post-GFA Northern Ireland, usually ignored or quickly forgotten. Not this time.
McCartney’s sisters launched a campaign – taking in an audience with US President George Bush – to have the killers tried in court, something hitherto fanciful given Sinn Féin supporters’ aversion to the police in Northern Ireland.
However, the public and political pressure on Sinn Féin prompted leader Gerry Adams to issue an unprecedented statement, calling on the IRA to adopt peaceful, democratic means to secure a united Ireland, just weeks after the IRA told an incredulous public that it offered to shoot those it believed murdered McCartney.
The IRA has not responded to Adams’ request, and is unlikely to until after the election. However, the measure of nationalist dissent at Sinn Féin’s dealing with the McCartney murder remains to be seen. The SDLP has not made Sinn Féin bashing the cornerstone of its campaign, despite the clear opportunity to do so afforded by the McCartney affair. The Irish government has intervened, with Finance Minister Brian Cowen and Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern in Northern Ireland over the past few days to lend tacit support to the SDLP.
Meanwhile, the DUP stance towards Sinn Féin and the IRA appears vindicated in the minds of unionist voters. While a number of unionist seats will be closely fought, it is possible that the DUP could claim all 11 or 12 of these on Thursday, including that of UUP leader and 1998 Nobel Laureate Trimble. The SDLP could be reduced to just one or two seats, with the crucial Foyle constituency a toss-up between Mark Durkan and Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin.
What this likely outcome means for Northern Ireland remains to be seen. In the light of the Belfast bank robbery and McCartney murder issues, DUP Deputy leader Peter Robinson saiduUnionist power-sharing with Sinn Féin was “a matter for the next generation”. Sinn Féin believes that the DUP will negotiate, after a cooling off period, following the elections – something the Irish and British governments will push for, along with a definitive end-game signal from the IRA. In short, political progress now is unthinkable without the IRA disbanding.
Regardless, inter-communal mistrust will likely continue, with the British and Irish publics growing even wearier of and more detached from the piecemeal progress and repetitive stasis.
However, a return to violence is almost inconceivable. Belfast-Basra comparisons will be as far-fetched as the two cities are far apart. However, another part of the world emerging from violent conflict may provide a suitable comparison.
According to outgoing parliamentarian and former SDLP deputy leader Séamus Mallon, a Sinn Féin-DUP hegemony promises a “Balkanization” of Northern Ireland, carved up between Sinn Féin and the DUP and without any prospect of internal cohesion or stability.
Adams described Mallon’s prediction as a rant. And while it may indeed turn out to be an overstatement, with the self-styled moderates reviving after a future period of stagnation under Sinn Féin-DUP antipathy, it could just as easily become a harsh reality.