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Will Northern Ireland elections be non-sectarian?

by Frank Schnittger Sun Jan 22nd, 2017 at 01:57:20 PM EST

The Northern Ireland Assembly, one of the key institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, has been dissolved and new elections are scheduled for 2nd. March.  The last elections had been held as recently as May 2016. The proximate cause of the election is the resignation of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in protest over the "Cash for Ash" Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the refusal of First Minister Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to stand aside whilst an inquiry is held.  

Arlene Foster had been responsible for overseeing the scheme as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.  The scheme, which could cost taxpayers as much as £500 Million, basically paid users more to use wood pellets to heat their properties than the pellets cost in the first place. There were reports of farmers heating empty barns just to make a profit on the scheme and that the families of some prominent DUP politicians benefited from it.

In one sense you could claim that the dispute marks a welcome change in Northern Ireland to a political dispute over a bread and butter issue rather than on purely tribalistic, sectarian lines. As usual, in Northern Ireland, the reality is more complex.


Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander and one of the principle architects of the Good Friday Agreement, has now said he will not stand for re-election on health grounds. He had formed such a good relationship with the late Ian Paisley as First and Deputy First Ministers, that they came to be known as the "chuckle brothers".

In contrast, Arlene Foster, now ex-First Minister, appears to find it difficult to form a good relationship with anyone. Ian Paisley Jnr. has paid a remarkable tribute to Martin McGuinness and made the pointed remark that current Unionist leaders would do well to do more to build good relationships with their nationalist brethren as his father and Martin McGuinness had done.

Arlene Foster's leadership has been marked by a return to often trivial sectarian provocations which have further damaged relationships. She even tried to spin attacks on her stewardship of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal as anti-feminist male chauvinism: a defence which angered feminists as undermining their real achievements - to which Arlene Foster and the DUP have contributed nothing.

But there is an even larger context. Northern Ireland voted against Brexit even though Arlene Foster and the DUP actively campaigned for it. According to a remarkable article by Fintan O'Toole they even financed a very expensive four-page pro-Brexit glossy ad supplement wrapped around the London Metro newspaper - most of whose readers would probably never have heard about the DUP and possibly thought it stood for Don't Understand Politics. The key fact he noted was that "Yet we have no idea who paid for it: Northern Ireland, charmingly, is exempt from British laws on the disclosure of political donations"...

So, for almost the first time in Northern Ireland politics, we had Unionist, Nationalist and non-sectarian parties united against the DUP and Brexit and winning a majority in a referendum. Many people, and not just nationalists, will be hoping that the new Assembly Elections in March will be the first to be fought on non-sectarian lines by parties representing a majority of voters.  We shall see... The old tribal loyalties have a way of reasserting themselves. Certainly Arlene Foster has not been shy about playing the sectarian card.

As Winston Churchill noted:

`Then came the Great War ... Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed ... The mode of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.'

Or as a former Tory Deputy Leader exclaimed:

"For God's sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country." - Reginald Maudling, Home Secretary, on getting on a plane after visiting Northern Ireland for the first time.

The DUP's campaign for Brexit was not driven by any rational analysis of what was in Northern Ireland's best political and economic self-interest, but by an ideological affinity with hard right British nationalist politics and a desire to be seen to be more British than the British themselves. Northern Ireland farmers - many of them Unionists - stand to lose a lot from Brexit, and almost immediately. This is not some arcane dispute over the long-run benefits or otherwise of Brexit. The effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland of losing EU grants and programmes supporting the Peace Process will also be immediate and devastating.

Perhaps the DUP calculated, like others, that the Brexit referendum would provide them with a cost free opportunity to hype their British Patriotism with the Remain side ultimately winning and nothing changing anyway. Whatever. They have now placed themselves in a minority position in N. Ireland politics for the first time. That does not mean they won't remain the largest party with the first claim on the First Minister position. It does mean that there is unlikely to be another devolved administration in Northern Ireland while Arlene Foster is leader.

London will be gifted with another period of Direct Rule of Northern Ireland just when it needs it least. Relations between London and Dublin and cooperation over Northern Ireland have been at an all time high thanks to the Good Friday Agreement. The wanton destruction of the key institution set up under that agreement will have long term implications for British Irish relations just when the UK needs an ally within the EU most.

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Nobody has shown any interest in this story either here or elsewhere.  Not even on Facebook.  Is it my writing or is N. Ireland just a complete turn off for everyone? My muse wants to know!

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sun Jan 22nd, 2017 at 10:51:29 PM EST
It is fascinating, and I do appreciate you writing about this. However, I find it hard to say much because the issues are exceedingly local in character. The particulars of the political situation are, well, very particualr here. It is hard/impossible to move from this to the more traditional left/right political spectrum because they simply do not map that way. Furthermore, whatever ends up happening will mainly be of interest to the Irish on both sides of the border -- and hopefully to the British government, though at this point that cannot be counted upon.

It's hard to understand, and of less bearing internationally than other issues - that would be my answer.

by Zwackus on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 01:00:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I can understand the sense of frustration and bewilderment.  Outside observers sometimes feel they are being transported into the 19th. century especially when fundamentalist Protestants start beating their sectarian drums and airing their kindergarten theology and homophobic views. I'm not particularly close to it myself and was just wondering if it was worth the effort trying to cover the issue on ET.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 01:28:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Frank, I am better informed about N. Ireland because of your writing and glad of it.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 06:19:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Second that.

We all bleed the same color.
by budr on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 07:52:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is it my writing or is N. Ireland just a complete turn off for everyone?

Definitely the latter: TBH,Northern Ireland seen from the continent looks like some remote place where Catholics are still at war with Protestants like it's 1572, and many folks are swearing by a dead Dutch Prince, using his name to "stick it up" to the other camp during the so-called "Marching season" (marching is seasonal sport now?).

Frankly, it looks weird to an external observer, as, I suppose, all fanaticism does.

Thanks to your writing, though, I've got to know the main issues a little bit better, or rather how the NI issues play out in the grand scheme of things like Brexit and the EU. Travel-free area between NI and the Republic and the £11 billions that Westminster keeps pouring into the ailing NI economy (plus EU development funds) are the main ones that struck me.

On NI and the Good Friday agreement, I've also read Colum McCann's Transatlantic, but, as beautifully written as it is, this is still fiction.

by Bernard on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 10:12:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think everyone is afraid of what NI can turn into, Frank, and they hope that if they don't look there won't be anything to see.  You have to admit, it's complicated.  I don't have any Irish in me, but I had ancestors on both sides at Clontarf.  If it starts, it will be a typical Irish family feud, sprawled all over the North Sea and onto the continent.  What puzzles me is Foster.  My oldest friend is Irish American and introduced me to Irish Alzheimers: You forget everything but your grudges.  Is that what's going on?  Does Foster have no memory of what happened and can happen again?
by rifek on Wed Jan 25th, 2017 at 04:29:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think she was traumatised by her childhood experiences of her father being shot and her school bus being bombed by the IRA because her father and the bus driver were part time members of the security services which were seen by republicans as state sanctioned terrorists.  

At a personal level I have a lot of sympathy for her on that score - it is not easy to overcome that sort of history and only few do. But that is also the political imperative for the north: to overcome a very traumatic history.  You need leaders who can overcome that sort of history in their personal lives in order that they can lead their people to overcome that history.  

So I am inclined to judge her harshly as a leader.  McGuinness came a long way from being IRA commander to leading the peace process and was eventually accepted by many on both sides - but not by Arlene Foster. She risks undoing a lot of the good work that has been done and recreating the conditions that led to her traumatisation - a not uncommon trait amongst victims of abuse of many kinds.  She needs to move on or be moved on.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Jan 25th, 2017 at 10:14:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You're right.  McGuinness and Paisley viewed each other as nothing but terrorists for a long time but got past it because they saw they had to.  If you can't do that, you have no business in the game.
by rifek on Wed Jan 25th, 2017 at 02:59:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it's interesting but find it also hard to understand NI politics at all. Do they run permanent grand coalitions to ensure the peace or how does it work?

Is it like Belgian politics that you need in practice a unionist and a nationalist party in the coalition and are the different unionists and nationalists aligned on a right-left axis?

by fjallstrom on Sun Jan 22nd, 2017 at 11:52:52 PM EST
Yes the administration must be formed by at least two parties - one from each community - and ministries are allocated by the d'Hondt system. In practice Unionist parties tend to range from right wing (Ulster Unionist Party) to hard right (DUP) some with paramilitary links and Nationalist Parties tend to range from left wing (Sinn Fein) to moderate bourgeois (SDLP). There are also small non-aligned parties like Alliance, the Greens and People before Profit.

Although demographic trends favour Nationalists, that has not really been reflected in elections to date with turn-out declining and some smaller non-aligned parties doing better. For Unionists, voting is an act of defiance and survival, whereas for Nationalists, voting in Westminister elections is almost an irrelevancy (Sinn Fein candidates elected do not take their seats) and devolved administration isn't really where its at if you really want a United Ireland.

However many Catholics prefer the safety of the status quo to an uncertain path towards a United Ireland and thus tend to vote SDLP or Alliance if they vote at all. Opinion polls are few and far between with small sample sizes so it is difficult to project how parties will do this time around.  Most pundits do not appear to expect any significant change this time around, however, which may make the exercise somewhat pointless for some.

While the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement are given credit for creating some sort of peace and normalcy in N. Ireland, there is also a widespread feeling of ennui at the usual sectarian sloganeering and a desire for politics to focus on bread and butter issues insofar as there is any interest in politics at all.  Many prefer to avoid politics and just get on with their lives given the bitterness often reflected in debate.

I think long term Brexit could be a game changer, but I think we could be waiting at least 10 years before there is significant constitutional change.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 01:21:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Of the non-sectarian options: Alliance, Greens, People before profit : the latter two gained seats in 2016 with respect to 2011 at the expense of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. I remember discussions about how this represented a beginning of secularisation of the Republican/Catholic voters.

I am wondering if it's the Unionist/Protestant population's turn to secularise their voting? Certainly the unedifying, and fundamentally inevitable, spectacle of corruption among the nailed-on majority faction would plead for this.

Because there is no other way out. Perhaps if the UUP overtook the DUP, but that seems a long shot.

I agree that this is an absolutely disastrous time for direct rule from Westminster, given the stakes with Brexit. On the other hand, it means May and co. will have to completely own the chaos and probable bloodshed that their policies will generate.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 05:44:21 PM EST
I am wondering whether this might have been part of the underlying reasons for collapsing the Assembly. Sinn Fein have been losing support amongst their younger and more radical base ever since the smaller parties withdrew from the (d'Hondt system appointed) executive administration to form a proper opposition.  Sinn Fein have had to take sole ownership of numerous DUP driven decisions and slights and have also had to implement Westminster imposed austerity.  

This has led to tensions within Sinn Fein, North and south, as Sinn Fein is a permanent party of opposition and protest in the south, and yet has been wide open to taunts of Sinn Fein implementing cutbacks in the North whilst opposing them from the opposition benches in the south.

Brexit promises to impose a whole new level of pain; why on earth would Sinn Fein want to take ownership of it? Under direct rule there is no way the British government can off-load any responsibility for what happens under Brexit, including a return to violence if a hard border is imposed. Sinn Fein may be happy to sit this one out.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 08:21:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Something I don't get is why Sinn Fein continues with not using their seats in the UK parliament, now that they are a part of the political power in Northern Ireland. I can understand it as a protest when they had no power to point out the illegitimacy of London rule. But now that they are part of the rule in Northern Ireland it means that they abstain from having power over the conditions of power in North Ireland.

So, why do they continue to do that?

by fjallstrom on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 10:45:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sinn Fein has historically pursued an abstentionist policy in Westminster basically because they are not prepared to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen as a matter of principle, and also to reinforce the point that they are working for a United Ireland, not for more influence for N. Ireland within the UK.  

It would be interesting, however, if a situation arose where their Westminster MPs could actually hold the balance of power in Westminster. Unionist MPs always vote with the Conservatives and held the balance of power in 1979 when a Labour Government was defeated.

It is conceivable that after the next general election, Labour, the Scottish Nationalists and Sinn Fein could have a bare majority if Sinn Fein took their seats.  They might decide to do so in return for a pledge to hold a referendum on Irish re-unification. For the most part, however, the North's MP's have little influence in Westminster and their absence is not a big loss of power.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 02:09:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
While some middle class liberal protestants have always voted Alliance, and one of the founders of the SDLP was a Protestant, I think that any secularisation trend is more likely to lead to a disillusion with politics and a disengagement from voting than any major change in voting patterns.

Many Protestants feel beleaguered - particularly those living in working class urban enclaves and in rural areas.  They don't have the middle class option of going to University in the UK or getting professional jobs in N. Ireland or abroad.  Their traditional industries have declined or collapsed and their crutches are their religion, parades, bands and badges of tribal identity - certain football clubs and associations.

Archetypal Trump voters in some respects, complete with the xenophobia, racism, homophobia and bigotry. Voting is one of the few ways they can assert themselves.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 08:30:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Just 15% of N. Ireland Catholics voted for Brexit while 71% if working class Protestants did so.  In contrast, middle class protestants voted 53-47% to remain. We thus have both a class and a sectarian divide on the issue. Ironically Brexit may end up causing a significant increase in the probability of a United Ireland happening (in some shape or form). It could split the Unionist community, whilst consolidating Nationalist support to remain close to the Republic within the EU.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Mon Jan 23rd, 2017 at 09:37:50 PM EST
New Sinn Fein Leader appointed in N. Ireland

The North's Minister of Health Michelle O'Neill was confirmed as Sinn Féin's leader in Northern Ireland on Monday and is now in line to be the North's next Deputy First Minister - or even joint First Minister depending on the result of the election.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams made the announcement in the Long Gallery of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, this afternoon.

Also present were Martin McGuinness, who last week confirmed he would not be standing in Foyle in the Assembly elections in March, and TD Mary Lou McDonald, seen as a potential successor to Mr Adams when he stands down.

---snip---

Ms O'Neill, a former local councillor, has been an Assembly member for Mid-Ulster since 2007. She is currently Minister for Health, a position she will hold until the election on March 2nd, and was a former minister of agriculture.

From Clonoe in Co Tyrone, Ms O'Neill is a 40-year-old Sinn Féin career politician whose appointment marks a break with the past. The other chief contender for the post, Conor Murphy, who for a number of years was viewed as Mr McGuinness's likeliest successor, is from south Armagh.

A senior Sinn Féin negotiator, he joined the IRA during the hunger strikes in 1981. The following year he was sentenced to five years in prison for IRA membership and possession of explosives.

Ms O'Neill, unlike Mr Murphy, does not have an IRA past, a factor viewed as significant. The fact that Mr Murphy was overlooked for the post seems to cement the point made by Mr McGuinness last week that he was handing over to a "new generation of republicans" the responsibility of leading Sinn Féin into the election campaign and the expected negotiations thereafter.



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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 01:55:03 AM EST
NI makes me turn off, and I have relatives up there.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 10:14:51 AM EST
Which is, of course, to say that you should absolutely keep writing about it.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 11:15:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Considering that, for most people, it's only a couple of hours up the road, the degree of separation that has grown up between "Norn Ireland" and citizens of the Republic is remarkable. The Republic may have voted for the Good Friday agreement by a huge (94% - 6%) margin, but that was an act of good neighbourliness. A vote for a United Ireland, especially if it were to cost the south a lot of money, would be an altogether tighter affair.  It might even be rejected if people were concerned it would lead to large scale loyalist terrorism in the  south.

Many years ago my late wife was chair of my local town's Women's Group - the largest in the country.  She organised an exchange with families from both traditions in the North whereby they would stay in each other's houses for a few days.  The Northern women of a protestant persuasion were worried they might not escape with their lives - as were local Catholics who were staying with protestant families in the North. It was a transformative experience for many as they came to realise the other side didn't have horns...

My own experiences of working in a working class Republican estate in the North as a student were similar. Whatever about changes in the geopolitical landscape or in political structures in Ireland, a lot of work needs to be done building relationships at local community level.  The difficulties experienced by people living in working class estate in the North and south are not that dissimilar. Oh for a politics that could focus on the real problems that people face, and not on the political and religious shibboleths which seem to govern people's lives...

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 11:44:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are still shops I'm not allowed go into in Enniskillen. I don't even know what the shop owners have done, or which ones they are, but if I wandered in my relatives would be scandalised.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 11:59:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And I would have thought that Enniskillen, after all that has happened, might have been a less sectarian place than (say) Belfast or Derry.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 12:13:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think that these boycotts are in response to specific acts by specific individuals, but I'm not too sure.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue Jan 24th, 2017 at 01:09:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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