Tag Archives: SDLP

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

Gary Hart deserved better than the dregs of NI peace

GaryHartPhoto credit to Getty Images.

US secretary of state John Kerry appointed former Colorado senator and one-time presidential candidate Gary Hart as the latest US envoy to Northern Ireland’s five-party peace talks earlier today.USflagnorthernirelandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Nearly two decades after former US senator George Mitchell concluded the Good Friday Agreement, bringing a tenuous peace between republican Catholics and unionist Protestants across Northern Ireland, Hart’s role will not amount to midwifing a landmark peace deal — it will be ensuring its continued implementation:

Fresh negotiations involving the five parties in the power-sharing mandatory coalition convened by the UK Government commenced last Thursday and are due to resume tomorrow.

As well as the long-unresolved peace process disputes on flags, parades and the legacy of the past, over the coming weeks politicians will also attempt to reach consensus on rows over the implementation of welfare reforms in the region and on the very structures of the devolved Assembly.

Northern Ireland is thriving today, amid a growing economy in the long-troubled capital of Belfast. Peace has brought with it a rising standard of living. But, as was on full display upon the death of former Northern Irish first minister Ian Paisley last month, long-simmering tensions still exist. It’s possible, though far from probable, that the kind of widescale violence of the ‘Troubles’ will return to Northern Ireland anytime soon.

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RELATED: No eulogies for Paisleyism

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It’s great to see Hart — at long last — providing useful service to his country. But US envoys to Northern Ireland today are all destined to be cast as relief pitchers in comparison to Mitchell’s role in shepherding the historic 1998 accords.

For someone who was, to a person, the most prescient voice on homeland security and the threat of terrorism in 1990s, his high-profile turn as a US envoy represents a bittersweet return to public life. Hart’s second act should have started long before age 77. Continue reading Gary Hart deserved better than the dregs of NI peace

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

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?

Hey! What about gay marriage in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

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Amid the fanfare that much of the United Kingdom would now enjoy full same-sex marriage rights following the success of Conservative UK prime minister David Cameron in enacting a successful vote earlier this week in Parliament, some LGBT activists are still waiting at the altar of public policy for their respective day of celebration.United Kingdom Flag Iconscotlandnorthernireland

Under the odd devolved system within the United Kingdom of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, it’s up to the separate Northern Ireland Assembly to effect its own laws on marriage.  Even within Great Britain, the Scottish parliament, likewise, has the sole power to enact legislation related to marriage rights.

So while nearly 90% of the residents of the country will now be able to enter into same-sex marriages, Scottish and the Northern Irish will have to wait a little longer — and in the case of Northern Ireland, it seems like the wait will be lengthy. Scotland, with 5.3 million people (8.4% of the total UK population), and which will vote on independence in a referendum in September 2014, is already taking steps toward passing legislation, though Northern Ireland, with 1.8 million people (2.9% of the UK population), has already considered and rejected same-sex marriage.

The reason for the disparity within the United Kingdom goes back to former Labour prime minister Tony Blair.

Under the broad devolution process that his ‘New Labour’ government initiated upon taking power in 1997, much of the power to regulate life in Scotland was devolved from Westminster to the new parliament that met for the first time in 1999 at Holyrood.  Although a parallel Welsh Assembly exists in Cardiff for Welsh affairs, the Welsh parliament lacks the same breadth of powers that the Scottish parliament enjoys, which is why the Welsh now have same-sex marriage rights. (Take heart, Daffyd!)

Northern Ireland has a similar arrangement, with its own devolved Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, though its powers were suspended from 2002 to 2007 when the Northern Ireland peace process fell apart, however briefly.

The disparate courses of English, Scottish and Northern Irish marriage rights are a case study in how devolution works in the United Kingdom today.

Scotland: Holyrood poised to pass an even stronger marriage equality bill in 2014

Scotland’s local government, led by Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party, introduced a same-sex marriage bill late in June that is set to provide an even more liberal regime of marriage rights.  While the marriage bill passed earlier this week in London actually bans the Anglican Church of England from offering same-sex marriage ceremonies, the Scottish bill won’t have the same prohibitions on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which is seen as somewhat more relaxed about gay marriage.  Like the English legislation, however, the Scottish bill offer protections to ministers on religious grounds who do not choose to officiate same-sex marriages.

Although there’s opposition to the bill within the governing SNP as well as the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish Liberal Democratic Party, the Conservative Party has very little influence outside England and Scotland, generally speaking, is even more socially progressive than England, which means that the legislation is widely expect to pass in the Scottish Parliament early next year, with the first same-sex marriages in Scotland to take place in 2015.

Northern Ireland: gay marriage as a football between Protestant and Catholic communities

Earlier this year, the Northern Ireland Assembly considered a same-sex marriage bill, but it was defeated in April by a vote of 53 to 42 — a similar motion was defeated in October 2012 by a similar margin. Since 2005, LGBT individuals have been able to enter into civil partnerships (with most, though not all, of the rights of marriage enjoyed by opposite-sex partners) throughout the entire United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

When Scotland passes its gay marriage bill next year, however, it will leave Northern Ireland as the only part of the United Kingdom without marriage equality.

Not surprisingly, given that Northern Ireland was partitioned out of the Republic of Ireland in 1921 largely on religious lines, and Protestant-Catholic violence has plagued Northern Ireland for much of the decades since, Northern Ireland is the most religious part of the United Kingdom.  A 2007 poll showed that while only 14% of the English and 18% of Scots were weekly churchgoers, fully 45% of the Northern Irish attended church weekly.

Unlike Scotland, where the mainstream UK political parties, such as the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats, aim to compete with the Scottish Nationalists (with varying degrees of success), Northern Irish politics are entirely different, based instead on the largely Protestant ‘unionist’ community and the largely Catholic ‘nationalist’ community.  Around 41% of Northern Ireland is Roman Catholic, while around 41.5% of Northern Ireland is Protestant (mostly the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Church of Ireland).

That helps explain why the opposition to gay marriage in Northern Ireland remains so strong, and it doesn’t help that the issue falls along the same lines as the entrenched unionist and nationalist divisions.  Given that it’s unlikely either community will come to dominate Northern Irish politics and the Assembly anytime soon, it means that proponents of same-sex marriage will have to convince at least some unionists to join forces with largely supportive nationalist parties to pass a marriage bill — and that may prove a difficult task for a five-way power-sharing government in Belfast that has enough difficulties even without gay marriage.  Continue reading Hey! What about gay marriage in Scotland and Northern Ireland?