Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, June 19, 2017

Northern Ireland Will Loom Large After British Election

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
Most people in Great Britain wish that the Northern Irish question would simply fade away. 

The so-called “Troubles” that began in the late 1960s, with massive violence in the province itself as well as Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings on the British mainland, saw more than 3,500 people killed.

The violence has tapered off in the last two decades. But Northern Ireland remains a bifurcated society with deep fractures and mutual animosities.

Its Protestant majority wishes to remain in the United Kingdom, while for the growing Roman Catholic minority, union with the Republic of Ireland to the south remains the ultimate goal.

Compared to most of Europe, it seems trapped in a political time warp. Despite the current armed truce the province is more polarized than ever.

The June 8 British general election starkly underscored this divide. The two Northern Irish parties most antagonistic to each other won all but one of the 18 seats allocated to the province at the Westminster parliament; more moderate ones were shut out.

On the Protestant side, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), founded by the late Presbyterian firebrand Ian Paisley in 1971, won 10 seats, a gain of two, while its less strident rival, the Ulster Unionist Party, once the major Protestant force, lost its only two seats.

In Catholic areas, Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, captured seven seats, more than doubling its caucus. The Social Democratic and Labour Party, its more moderate and left-wing Catholic rival, lost all three of its seats. 

The SDLP was the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland from the time of its foundation in 1970 until the beginning of the 21st century.

As for the Alliance Party, which has come to represent wider liberal and non-sectarian concerns, it too was defeated everywhere.

The DUP and Sinn Féin are also the largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The DUP supporters are socially conservative, religiously Protestant, Ulster Loyalist and British nationalist, and, for good measure, climate change deniers. 

The party has historically strong links to the Protestant Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, also founded by Paisley. They have vetoed same-sex marriage proposals and opposed access to abortion services. Their critics say they are supported by paramilitary groups. 

But they have always been natural allies of the Tories in London. After all, the official name of the party of Prime Minister Theresa May is the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Anyhow, May has little choice: The election was a disaster for her. Not having won a majority, she had to cobble together enough votes in parliament to stay in office. The Liberal Democrats and the Welsh and Scottish parties were out of the question.

The day following the vote, DUP leader Arlene Foster indicated that she wanted to “bring stability to our nation” by backing the Conservatives. The party has been consistently critical of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, particularly for his past links with Sinn Féin.

The main issue for the DUP is to keep Northern Ireland as tightly as possible within the United Kingdom. It needs a promise from May that there will be no separate post-Brexit status for Northern Ireland. Foster explained that “what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union.”

Sinn Féin has argued that because the Northern Ireland electorate voted by 56  to 44 per cent to remain within Europe last year, and because the region will be the only one in the UK with a post-Brexit land border with the EU – that between Ulster and the Irish Republic -- the area should have special status.

But Loyalists see that as a ploy to draw the north closer to union with the Republic, which they absolutely oppose. Mainly Protestant areas did vote for Brexit -- although even they want the border to remain “seamless and “frictionless.”

Oddly, Sinn Fein, too, will prove, in a strange way, useful to May. That’s because the party’s seven MPs will, as always, refuse to take their seats in parliament. Although elected, they do not recognize British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, as a matter of principle.

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, confirmed that his MPs would not be going to the House of Commons.

Hence, instead of needing 326 votes in the 650-member chamber to remain in power, May will only need 322. Although it’s not a formal coalition, together with the DUP she has 328 -- a working majority.

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