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Northern Ireland struggles to form government after close vote

Arlene Foster’s year as first minister ended calamitously with the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, the fall of her government and early elections. (Facebook)

It was  first set of regional elections in the United Kingdom since Brexit. 

But the impending conundrum of Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland — the future of vital EU subsidy funds and the reintroduction of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that had become all but invisible within the European Union — wasn’t the only issue on the minds of Northern Irish voters when they went to the polls last Thursday.

The snap election followed a corruption scandal implicating first minister Arlene Foster — leader of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — that caused then-deputy first minister Martin McGuinness to resign from the power-sharing executive, forcing new elections, just 10 months after the prior 2016 elections.

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RELATED: Why Northern Ireland is the most serious
obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

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Politics in Northern Ireland runs along long-defined sectarian lines. Most of the region’s Protestant voters support either of the two main unionist parties — the socially conservative and pro-Brexit DUP or the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which backed the ‘Remain’ side in last June’s Brexit referendum. Most of the region’s Catholic voters support either of the two republican parties — the more leftist Sinn Féin or the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), both of which are fiercely anti-Brexit. An increasing minority of voters, however, support the non-sectarian, centrist and liberal Alliance Party.

Since the late 1990s, when the Blair government introduced devolution and a regional parliament at Stormont, and when the DUP and Sinn Féin displaced the UUP and the SDLP, respectively, as the leading unionist and republican parties, the DUP has always won first place in regional elections. That nearly changed last Thursday, as Sinn Féin came within just 1,168 votes of overtaking the DUP as the most popular party.

It leaves the DUP with just one more seat than Sinn Féin and below the crucial number of 30 that it needs to veto policies. Without 30 seats, the DUP will no longer be able to block marriage equality (Northern Ireland lags as the only UK region that hasn’t permitted same-sex marriage) or an Irish language bill that would give Gaelic equal status with English in public institutions. It was high-handed for Foster — and Peter Robinson before her — to block the popular will on both of those issues over the last decade. That, in turn, is not helping the DUP in its bid to negotiate a new power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin.

More consequentially, it leaves unionists with a clear minority for the first time since devolution — just 40 seats in the 90-seat parliament (the number of deputies dropped from 108 members for the 2017 election). Most crucially of all, the election result creates a new equilibrium for the post-election talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which are now one week into a three-week deadline to form a new power-sharing executive, as guided by the British government’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire. Continue reading Northern Ireland struggles to form government after close vote

Sinn Fein joins list of surging anti-austerity forces in Europe

Mary Lou McDonald, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin, represents a new post-IRA, anti-austerity face. (Facebook).
Mary Lou McDonald, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin, represents a new post-IRA, anti-austerity face. (Facebook).

In April, Ireland will celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Easter Rising, the failed rebellion of an overpowered band of Irish republicans.Ireland Icon

The heavy-handed response of British troops ended up martyring the republican cause, their lethal overreaction ultimately changing, and hardening, Irish public opinion in favor of independence from the United Kingdom.

Under the penumbra of this year’s centennial celebrations, Irish voters will go to the polls on February 26, after Enda Kenny, Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) announced last week the dissolution of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, to ask voters to reelect his center-right Fine Gael, along with its junior coalition partner, Ireland’s social democratic Labour Party.

But polls show that the party with the most momentum is Sinn Féin, which hopes to capitalize on several factors toward what would be a historic victory. Hoping to peel off disaffected Labour voters, Sinn Féin might even be within striking distance of first place, given that no single party will come close to an absolute majority. Continue reading Sinn Fein joins list of surging anti-austerity forces in Europe

No eulogies for Paisleyism

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Ian Paisley was a small man, and he led a small movement that forestalled peace in Northern Ireland for decades, withholding from Protestant and Catholic families alike the economic and social progress that accrued to virtually the rest of western Europe, and inflaming sectarian tribalism that still haunts Northern Ireland’s cultural fabric in the 21st century.United Kingdom Flag Iconnorthernireland

Upon his death today at age 88, he’ll be feted as a statesman in too-long-to-read eulogies prepared long ago in The Guardian and The New York Times.

Those eulogies will note that Paisley, at age 81, finally agreed to a power-sharing agreement with Irish Republicans, making him Northern Ireland’s first minister from 2007 until his retirement in 2008. It was a decade after he opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that generally ended active fighting between Northern Ireland’s Protestant loyalists and Catholic republicans. Those eulogies will show pictures of Paisley smiling and laughing with his nemesis, Martin McGuinness, the Northern Irish leader of Sinn Féin who continues to serve as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister in a power-sharing coalition with Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson.

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They were nicknamed the ‘Chuckle Brothers,’ though it’s hard to find too much to laugh about in the deaths of over 3,500 people during three decades of fighting that tore apart families and stunted the growth of a country all in the name of religious nationalism.

Paisley’s critics argue that his 11th hour conversion to power-sharing was a cynical maneuver — with the knowledge that reverting to the violent era of the Troubles was impossible, Paisley moved to cement his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the natural party of Protestant governance in Northern Ireland, displacing the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and David Trimble, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to enact the Good Friday Agreement.

Cynical or not, Paisley’s late-in-life conversion is a fact, and it won’t be the first time that politicians have taken self-serving actions. In exchange for the power-sharing agreement, Paisley will be remembered today as a statesman with a peerage, not a garden-variety terrorist. That’s just politics, and Paisley made the smart move. He saw, a decade after Good Friday, that the train was well out of the station, and he jumped on at the last minute.

And so much the better for Northern Ireland that he did.

But he took a damned ugly path to get there. Continue reading No eulogies for Paisleyism

A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

skepticismAs voters in 28 European countries prepare to head to the polls, beginning on May 22 and running through May 25, no one knows whether Europe’s center-left or center-right will win more seats, and no one knows who will ultimately become the next president of the European Commission.European_Union

But the one thing upon which almost everyone agrees is that Europe’s various eurosceptic parties are set for a huge victory — not enough seats to determine the outcomes of EU legislation and policymaker, perhaps, but enough to form a strong, if disunited, bloc of relatively anti-federalist voices. Voters, chiefly in the United Kingdom, France and Italy, are set to cast strong protest votes that could elect more than 100 eurosceptic MEPs.

In some countries, such as Spain, euroscepticism is still a limited force the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) is tied for the lead with the governing center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. But Spain is quickly becoming an outlier as eurosceptic parties are springing up in places where unionist sentiment once ran strong.

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RELATED: In Depth: European parliamentary elections
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Of course, not all eurosceptics are created equally. Some anti-Europe parties have been around for decades, while others weren’t even in existence at the time of the last elections in 2009. Some are virulently xenophobic, far-right or even neo-Nazi in their outlooks, while others are cognizably on the more mainstream conservative / leftist ideological spectrum. Some seek nothing short of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union altogether, while others seek greater controls on immigration. Some are even pro-Europe in the abstract, but oppose eurozone membership. That’s one of the reasons why eurosceptics have had so much trouble uniting across national lines — the mildest eurosceptic parties abhor the xenophobes, for example.

If everyone acknowledges that eurosceptic parties will do well when the votes are all counted on Sunday, no one knows whether that represents a peak of anti-Europe support, given the still tepid economy and high unemployment across the eurozone, or whether it’s part of a trend that will continue to grow in 2019 and 2024.

With 100 seats or so in the European Parliament, eurosceptics can’t cause very many problems. They can make noise, and they stage protests, but they won’t hold up the EU parliamentary agenda. With 200 or even 250 seats, though, they could cause real damage. There’s no rule that says that eurosceptics can’t one day win the largest block of EP seats, especially so long as most European voters ignore Europe-wide elections or treat them as an opportunity to protest unpopular national government.

For now, though, they’re all bound to cause plenty of trouble for their more mainstream rivals at the national level, and in at least five countries, they could wind up with the largest share of the vote. So it’s still worth paying attention to them.

Without further ado, here are the top 13 eurosceptic parties to keep an eye on as the results are announced on Sunday:

Continue reading A rogues’ gallery of the EU’s top 13 eurosceptic parties

What’s going on with Gerry Adams and the Northern Irish police?

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With just less than a month until voters in both Ireland and Northern Ireland choose their representatives to the European Parliament, the Belfast police have for the past four days given the Irish republican Sinn Féin a potent campaign issue — and exacerbated tensions nearly two decades after the struggle between Irish Catholics and Protestants moved from killing and violence to the realm of politics. northernirelandIreland Icon

Northern Ireland’s police force arrested Gerry Adams, the leader of the republican Sinn Féin since the early 1980s on Wednesday, holding him for four days in relation to one of the most brutal murders of the Northern Irish violence. Other Sinn Féin leaders, including Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, have attacked the arrest as a political stunt, but other politicians in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have been more reticent to comment on what’s become an unpredictable turn of events.

The  arrest relates to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was pulled from her home by armed gunmen within  the Irish Republican Army. She was later killed and ‘disappeared,’ her remains found only in 2003. It was a particularly cruel murder among many such killings during Northern Ireland’s  ‘Troubles,’ the violent struggle between unionist Protestants who largely supported Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom, and Irish nationalist Catholics, who wanted northern Ireland to be part of a unified Irish republic.

The struggle dates to 1921, when the United Kingdom partitioned Ireland into the largely Protestant Northern Ireland and the largely Catholic Southern Ireland. A year later, Southern Ireland became the ‘Irish Free State,’ but most of Northern Ireland’s residents remained committed unionists, despite a strong, organized Catholic minority that favored Ireland’s unification. When the Republic of Ireland gained full independence in 1949, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, a status that continues to this day. The IRA began an armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.

Throughout the worst of the political violence in the 1970s and the 1980s, Sinn Féin emerged as the political arm of the IRA. Though Adams (pictured aboveclaims that he was never a member of the IRA, there were always strong links between the two organizations, and Adams has never apologized for advancing the IRA’s political interests.

Adams surrendered to police on Wednesday in connection to the re-opening of the investigation, and they held him in custody through the weekend, going so far as to obtain a court order in request of an additional 48 hours to interrogate Adams. He was released earlier Sunday without charge — for now.

Former IRA leader Brendan Hughes accused Adams of having organized and ordered the killing on suspicion that McConville was a British spy. Hughes died in 2008, but made the claim to a Boston College historian compiling an oral history of the Troubles. Hughes strenuously broke with Adams after the Sinn Féin leader accepted the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, so his accusations must come with some amount of skepticism — he’s also been dead for six years, making his charge against Adams problematic from an evidentiary point of view.

Shaun Woodward, a British Labour MP and former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, argues in The Guardian that Adams’s arrest highlights the need for a way to address the atrocities committed during the Troubles in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the future of Northern Ireland’s government and what’s still very much an ongoing peace process:

South Africa dealt with its past through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I can already hear the politicians screaming no, but that’s to be expected: the thing is to take the argument directly to the people. Nor is it for outsiders to choose whether this model could work for Northern Ireland. What is clear is that we need something that allows justice to be seen to be done, without crippling the peace process or simply avoiding the issue. Without a mechanism that is both fair and based on quasi-judicial principles, it is impossible to imagine that Northern Ireland will ever successfully move out of the clenched jaws of its grisly past.

So what does this latest development mean for politics in Northern Ireland and in the southern Republic of Ireland?

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Adams’s arrest could derail 16-year peace in Northern Ireland

The 1998 ‘Good Friday’ agreement largely brought the sectarian violence to an end, and Adams now leads Sinn Féin as a force within both Northern Ireland, where the party sits on the Northern Ireland Executive — it largely governs alongside its rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and other parties. Sinn Féin holds four ministries, the DUP holds five ministries, and three other parties hold another four ministries. Adams’s colleague McGuinness has served as the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland since 2007. Continue reading What’s going on with Gerry Adams and the Northern Irish police?

Will the Irish referendum stop the latest EU treaty?

It’s not as if the European Union needed to plan another landmine to explode the agreed “fiscal compact” from last December which, broadly speaking, would require EU countries to maintain a structural deficit of less than 0.5% of nominal GDP annually. 

With the anti-austerity candidate leading the polls in France and with Greek parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring, there is no shortage of political events that could cause yet another crisis in the eurozone.  And after so many countries (including Germany!) violated the 1997 Stability and Growth Pact’s budget deficit rule (no more than 3% of GDP) throughout the 2000s, you might remain skeptical that any country would hew for very long to a 0.5% budget rule.

So the last thing anyone in Brussels wanted to hear was Dublin’s insistence last week that the fiscal compact will require an Irish referendum prior to its ratification.

Yet last week, Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that, on advice from the Irish attorney general, Ireland will be required to hold a referendum on the fiscal compact treaty.  It was previously thought (hoped?) that an Irish referendum might not be necessary.  Given that British prime minister David Cameron announced that the UK would veto the amendment of existing EU treaties, and the decision of the Czech Republic not to join the final version, the treaty is not a formal EU treaty, but an intergovernmental treaty among the remaining 25 EU members.

Under Crotty v. An Taoiseach in 1987, the Supreme Court of Ireland decided that any significant changes to any EU treaties to which Ireland accedes require an amendment to the Irish constitution prior to ratification, and therefore subject to a referendum.

Currently, polls indicate that 60% of Irish voters support the treaty, but the referendum date has not yet been announced and opponents will have ample time to mobilize.

If you look at the trajectory of the first-shot Irish referenda on various EU treaties, you would not necessarily be optimistic:

Continue reading Will the Irish referendum stop the latest EU treaty?