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Getting Past It in Belfast

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: March 9, 2007

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Ireland or “the Union?” Catholic or Protestant? Orange or Green? They have been life and death choices for so long in the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland. But more practical matters at last appear to be pushing them to the back burner. Northern Ireland’s provisional assembly elections (ElectionGuide.org) Wednesday found voters casting ballots along old tribal lines, but the vote itself centered on a more technical, more mundane issue known as “devolution.” At issue: Will Northern Ireland’s dominant political parties, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and their bitter rivals in Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), be willing to share power? Voting went smoothly and, as expected, hard-liners from both sides took a majority of votes (CNN). They'll now have until March 26 to form a workable provincial government.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the worst of the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for four decades and took over three thousand lives. The IRA, plus rival “loyalist” paramilitary groups opposed to any effort to break ties with Britain, agreed to lay down their arms and renounce violence. Since then, efforts to implement the power-sharing agreement have invariably failed after objections from unionists, led by DUP, that Sinn Fein and its shadowy IRA allies are failing to disarm. The result has been continued direct rule from London and the British government's Northern Ireland Office.

Of late, however, Sinn Fein and the DUP cleared some key hurdles, prodded by the British and Irish governments fed up with their foot-dragging, and by average citizens, whose lives, property values, and futures have been held hostage by ancient grievances.

Late last year, in the St. Andrews Agreement, the two factions agreed to try again - but with caveats. Unionists first insisted Sinn Fein publicly pledge its support for the provisional police force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. That agency is successor to the corrupt and occasionally murderous Royal Ulster Constabulary, which never won the trust of the province’s large Catholic minority. In January, Sinn Fein did pledge its support (WashPost), setting the stage for the March 7 election. 

The provincial election would be complex enough (BBC) without the “devolution” question. The province’s eighteen separate constituencies often include a dozen or more candidates, though only five parties—the DUP, Sinn Fein, the more moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), and the Protestant-dominated Ulster Unionists (UUP)—likely will poll enough to hold significant sway in the provincial assembly. 

One way or another, calm seas appear unlikely. Peter Robinson, a leading DUP member of parliament, foresees “a battle a day” in a shared DUP-Sinn Fein government. Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, also roiled nerves by emphasizing long held plans (Belfast Telegraph) for Sinn Fein, which also competes in elections in the Republic of Ireland, to join the Dublin government.

Over the longer term, others fear the current calm may mask a gathering storm (BosGlobe). A group of political scientists at Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council has tracked deteriorating relations between Northern Irish communities and a drop in other indicators of stability, including emigration to other parts of the UK, consumer confidence, and those willing to live in mixed Catholic-Protestant neighborhoods.

For more reading, the BBC’s election site includes candidate interviews and features, while Politics.co.uk offers this Q&A on Northern Ireland’s government. Sinn Fein leader Adams spoke at CFR in New York in 2006, and this Backgrounder looks at the uneven record of terrorists groups attempting to evolve into mainstream political parties.

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