Tag Archives: sinn fein

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

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

Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)
Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)

When pro-Leave campaigners argued that, by leaving the European Union, Great Britain could ‘take back control,’ one of the clear things over which Brexit proponents seem to want to take control was national borders.northernirelandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Given that Great Britain itself is an island, that’s mostly a theoretical proposition, because you can’t step across the border into England, Scotland and Wales — their ‘borders’ are through their seaports and airports.

That’s not true in Northern Ireland, the only region in the United Kingdom that does share a land border with another European Union member-state. It’s also one of the most delicate tripwires for British prime minister Theresa May in her dutiful quest to invoke Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty next year and begin negotiations for a British EU withdrawal.

Scotland has garnered more headlines because Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that Scots, who voted strongly for Remain, deserve a second independence referendum  when the British government finally does leave the European Union. But if ‘Remain’ proponents are looking to the one part of the United Kingdom that could impossibly prevent Article 50’s invocation, they should look to Northern Ireland, where Brexit could unravel two decades of peace, and where Brexit is already causing some anxiety about the region’s future.

May, just days after replacing David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, visited Belfast earlier this week in a bid to reassure both unionists and republicans. But it’s not clear that May’s first journey to Northern Ireland, which preceded a meeting with Ireland’s leader a day later, was a success.

May boldly claimed that Brexit need not result in the return of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But settling Northern Ireland’s Brexit border issue is virtually intractable for the May government — at least without alienating one of three crucial groups of people: first, the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland; second, the most Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland or finally, those Brexit supports across the entire country who voted ‘Leave’ in large part to close UK borders to further immigration.

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As in Scotland, Northern Ireland’s voters narrowly titled against Brexit — 55.78% supported ‘Remain,’ while just 44.22% supported ‘Leave.’ Generally speaking, republicans widely supported ‘Remain,’ and unionists leaned toward ‘Leave,’ including first minister Arlene Foster. Continue reading Why Northern Ireland is the most serious obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

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

How Northern Ireland might become Westminster’s crucial swing vote

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On Monday, Northern Ireland’s health minister Jim Wells resigned after he made numerous comments that not only disparaged gay and lesbian parents but alleged that LGBT parents were more prone to child abuse.northernirelandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

His party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is the strongest party in Northern Ireland today, and its leader, Peter Robinson, serves as Northern Ireland’s first minister. Though Northern Ireland is home to just 2.9% of the United Kingdom’s population, and it’s allocated just 18 seats in the 650-member House of Commons, those seats could make the crucial difference in the race to become prime minister.

Though the election has been more about Scotland’s role in any post-election coalitions, Northern Ireland could become even more important. If Robinson’s DUP holds the balance of power, it could thrust one of the most anti-gay, socially conservative parties in Europe into the spotlight with consequences that could shake the still-fragile power-sharing agreement that’s brought peace to Northern Ireland.

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RELATED: What about gay marriage in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

RELATED: No eulogies for Paisleyism

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Polls consistently show three things:

  • The Scottish National Party (SNP) is projected to win, for the first time, the vast majority of Scotland’s 59 seats, and its leader, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she’ll prop up a center-left government led by Labour’s Ed Miliband and will not support, under any circumstances, any vote of confidence for the incumbent, David Cameron (pictured above with Robinson).
  • Neither the Conservatives nor Labour are projected to win enough seats to form a majority, forcing Cameron and Miliband to seek allies from minor parties.
  • The Liberal Democrats, which have joined the Tories in a governing coalition since 2010, and whose leader, Nick Clegg, says he could support either the Tories or Labour after 2015, are not projected to win enough seats to propel either major party to a majority.

Conceivably, that’s where the DUP would become vital — a world where a Tory-Lib Dem coalition falls just short of the 326 seats Cameron would need for reelection. No other party, after the SNP, is projected to win more seats than the DUP, which currently holds eight of Northern Ireland’s seats.  After entering into an electoral alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in a handful of constituencies, there’s reason to believe that the DUP/UUP could together emerge with as many as 10 seats. Continue reading How Northern Ireland might become Westminster’s crucial swing 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

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Nearly a week after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, on at least two levels — the consequences of the historic level of eurosceptic parties elected across Europe and in terms of the growing battle between the European Parliament and the European Council over electing the next European Commission president. European_Union

In the first part of a Suffragio series examining the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, I focused on the five most populous countries in the European Union: the United Kingdom and France, where eurosceptic parties won the greatest share of the vote; Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel won another strong victory; Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi won a near-landslide mandate just three months into his premiership; and Spain, where both traditional parties lost support to a growing constellation of anti-austerity movements — so much so that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party, resigned

In the second part, I examined the results in nine more countries — Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

In the third and final part, I examine the results in the remaining 14 countries of the European Union. Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

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
RELATED: The European parliamentary elections are really four contests

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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?

Irish vote to retain the Seanad deals blow to Kenny, who pledges parliamentary reform instead

Kiss me, I'm David Norris

Irish voters delight in contrarianism.Ireland Icon

When Irish voters were supposed to endorse the Treaty of Nice in 2001, they rejected it instead.  After nine months of renegotiation with the European Union to secure recognition of Ireland’s traditional military neutrality, Dublin held a second referendum and Irish voters adopted the revised Nice treaty.  Irish voters did the same thing in June 2008, when they rejected the Treaty of Lisbon by an equally narrow margin (again, Dublin set about renegotiating and held a successful referendum shortly thereafter).

When Irish voters, suffering under severe budget cuts and tax increases, may have had a gripe with last year’s European ‘fiscal compact’ (not a treaty, in the formal sense, because of the United Kingdom’s veto), they instead approved the fiscal compact by a wide margin in the June 2012 referendum.

In Sunday’s referendum, Ireland’s stubborn voters were expected to vote to abolish the Seanad Éireann (Irish senate), the upper house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament, on the promise of a future with fewer politicians instead of more.

Political leaders across all lines — the Irish left, the Irish center-right and even Irish nationalists — supported moving to a unicameral system to cut up to $20 million in annual costs and to eliminate a chamber that’s largely seen as unrepresentative, undemocratic and wasteful, while using the opportunity to register disgust with a political elite that remains unpopular in the wake of a sovereign debt crisis, the failure of Irish banks, and a humiliating European bailout that has imposed a new era of austerity in a country that, only a decade ago, was known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ for its surging economy.

But perhaps the Irish electorate decided to register its contrarianism at the very notion of being perceived as anti-politician contrarians.

For whatever reason, not enough Irish voters elected to abolish the Seanad, and the October 4 referendum was defeated by a narrow margin of 51.7% voting ‘No,’ and just 48.3% voting ‘Yes.’

The result broke down on largely regional lines.  Voters in Munster and Connacht in the west of the country largely voted to abolish the Irish senate, while the northern state of Ulster and the eastern state of Leinster (including all of the constituencies in Dublin) voted to retain the senate.  In particular, Ulster voters worried that the elimination of the Irish senate would also eliminate the one forum where Northern Irish voices have been historically heard within the government of the Republic of Ireland.

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The result left the Taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minster), Enda Kenny, with perhaps the biggest defeat since taking power in March 2011.  Kenny campaigned on the promise of eliminating the Irish senate, and the referendum fulfills a promise to bring the issue to a direct referendum.  But as Kenny said following the result: ‘Sometimes in politics you get a wallop.’

The defeat is another warning sign of the growing unpopularity of Kenny’s government — though voters blamed Fianna Fáil for the initial Irish banking crisis and its aftermath, they seem to be holding Fine Gael responsible for the austerity that’s followed since the 2011 elections.

A recent October 1 RTE poll showed that Kenny’s liberal center-right Fine Gael has plummeted to 26% support (after winning 36.1% in the last election), while its coalition partner, the progressive Labour Party wins just 6% support, the lowest level in decades (after winning 19.4% in 2011).  Though the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil has regained some ground at 22% (up from 17.4% in 2011), the real winner is the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, which polled 23% support (up from 9.9% in 2011).

Among the supporters of abolishing the Irish senate were Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Féin and Ireland’s Socialist Party.  Politically speaking, the result was a victory for Ireland’s most successful post-independence party, the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil, which suffered a historical loss in the 2011 election.   Fianna Fáil campaigned against eliminating the Irish senate in favor of reforming it, arguing that it served as a necessary watchdog against poor government.  Kenny had received criticism prior to the vote for refusing to debate Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, and those criticisms amplified in the aftermath of the referendum’s defeat.

It’s also a victory for many of Ireland’s longtime independent senators, some of whom are incredibly colorful and thoughtful figures, including David Norris (pictured above kissing a supporter), a scholar of James Joyce and Ireland’s first major openly gay presidential candidateContinue reading Irish vote to retain the Seanad deals blow to Kenny, who pledges parliamentary reform instead

Should Ireland abolish its Seanad (Senate) and go unicameral?

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Irish voters will determine on Friday whether to eliminate the Seanad Éireann (Irish senate), the upper house of the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament.

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Before you think that this is such a transformative step in Irish governance, it’s important to keep in mind that the Irish senate doesn’t have nearly the powers of, say, the United States senate because it doesn’t have veto power over Irish legislation — at worst, the Irish senate can delay lawmaking, not bring it to a halt.  Furthermore, its members aren’t directly elected by the people, leading to charges that the upper house is a wasteful, undemocratic, unrepresentative anachronism.

If, as expected, Irish voters approve the referendum, the Irish senate will cease to exist as of the next Irish general election, which must take place before 2016.

It’s one of the campaign pledges that Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pictured above) promised in advance of the February 2011 parliamentary elections that swept his liberal center-right Fine Gael into power, in coalition with the social democratic Labour Party.  In an odd-bedfellows coalition, most of Ireland’s major parties support abolishing the Senate, including Fine Gael and Labour, but also the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin.  Only the conservative center-right Fianna Fáil, which suffered a historic defeat in the 2011 election, opposes the referendum and prefers to retain the senate, albeit a reformed, more representative, more productive senate.

The system by which the upper house’s 60 senators are appointed is truly anachronistic — the Taoiseach appoints 11 and graduates of the University of Dublin and the National University of Ireland are each entitled to elect three senators.  The remaining 43 are nominated from five ‘vocational panels’ that span the public/administrative, agricultural/fishing, cultural/educational, industrial/commercial, and labour sectors.  In practice, this means that the Irish senate is  where a lot of failed political candidates land.  The remaining house, the Dáil Éireann, is composed of 166 deputies.

Given that Ireland has been rocked by economic crisis following the 2008-09 financial crisis that saw Ireland nationalize some of its banks and assume their obligations, Kenny and other supporters of the referendum argue that the Irish senate is an unnecessary and undemocratic expense for such a small country as Ireland (with 4.6 million people), especially in light of its 40-year membership in the European Union, which remains responsible for an increasing amount of regulatory standards within Ireland.

Many Irish voters agree — an IPSOS poll earlier this week showed 44% favored abolition, 27% opposed abolition, while 21% were unsure, though when undecideds had to choose, the pro-abolition side won 62% to 38%.

Although countries don’t abolish entire legislative chambers every day, it’s not wholly unprecedented, either.  New Zealand abolished its unelected Legislative Council in 1950, Denmark abolished its upper house in 1953 and Sweden followed suit in 1970.  Generally speaking, unicameral parliaments are more common on the periphery of the European Union than in its core — they exist in Portugal, all of the Scandinavian states (including Iceland), all three Balkan state, Slovakia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus and Ukraine.

The arguments for unicameralism, generally, mirror those that Kenny and ‘Yes’ supporters are making in Ireland.   Continue reading Should Ireland abolish its Seanad (Senate) and go unicameral?

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?

Ireland votes ‘yes’ to fiscal compact in referendum

The count is underway, but it looks certain that the fiscal compact will pass yesterday’s Irish referendum — by around a 60-40 margin:

According to results received at the central count centre in Dublin Castle to date, 57.6 per cent voted Yes, while 42.4 per cent voted No, when spoiled or invalid votes are excluded. Turnout is in the region of 50 per cent.

Of the 15 constituencies to submit full results, 12 have recorded a Yes vote. Full constituency-by-constituency results are available here.

Earlier this week, I looked at some of the reasons why Irish voters seemed more inclined to accept this treaty on the first vote, after rejecting the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008: in no insignificant terms, a ‘no’ vote would have perhaps caused international investors to flee Ireland and maybe has caused Ireland to be unable to access the European Stability Mechanism.  Also, given that the treaty need not be unanimously ratified, Ireland would have had no ability to reject the treaty in favor of additional concessions from Brussels.
At a time when anti-austerity forces are gathering momentum across Europe, the treaty vote in the tiny country, hamstrung by a European bailout, is not going to stem that momentum.  But it is a significant victory for the mainstream Irish political parties (who have finally won a pro-EU vote for the first time since 1997) and for Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his government: the message Irish voters are sending today, both to European leaders and the markets seems to be, “Not to worry, Ireland’s not Greece.”
It is a defeat for Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin — Adams’s vocal opposition to the treaty did not convince Irish voters in the face of such strong arguments (some might say blackmail) from the markets and from mainstream politicians.

Irish set to approve fiscal compact in Thursday referendum

Ireland’s feisty voters, which have developed an art form out of defeating European Union treaties, still seem likely to support the fiscal compact treaty in Thursday’s referendum:

Polls show the ‘yes’ vote in the lead — the latest Irish Times poll shows 39% in favor, 30% opposed, with 22% undecided and 9% not voting.  Other polls have shown even strong support for the ‘yes’ camp.

After the Sturm und Drang of May 2012’s electoral wave, which has seen voters support anti-austerity politicians from Germany to Greece, the fiscal compact seems to have less momentum than ever.

So it would be a plucky twist of fate if Ireland, which has become the bête noire of EU treaty making — its constitution provides that a EU treaty is an amendment of the Irish constitution and, consequently, must be approved in a referendum — gives a thumbs-up to a fiscal compact that might never go into law EU-wide and would result in a loss of Irish sovereignty with respect to its own fiscal policymaking.

Furthermore, over the course of Ireland’s four decades in the EU, Irish voters have voted on six treaties, and in each case, the initial pro-treaty vote has decreased for each new treaty:

In each of the last two efforts, for the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008, Irish voters initially defeated the treaty, Irish negotiators worked to attain new concessions from the EU and each treaty was subsequently ratified in a second referendum.

The fiscal compact, cobbled together by Merkel and then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy in December 2011 amid soaring bond prices for Spanish and Italian debt, would limit each EU member state to a structural budget deficit of just 0.5% of GDP.  That target seemed unrealistic in November, but seems even more so today, with many European economies still stagnant (or in recession).  Newly elected French president François Hollande has called for revisiting the terms of the fiscal compact during and after his election.

So the final ratification of the fiscal compact is far from certain, with or without Ireland.  As the UK and the Czech Republic opted out of the fiscal compact, the fiscal compact is not, as a technical matter, a formal EU treaty.  Accordingly, it needs ratification from just 12 eurozone members before January 1, 2013 to go into effect.

As of today, it has received just three conditional ratifications. In Slovenia and Portugal, national parliaments have approved the fiscal compact, but the ratifications are not formally complete without presidential approval.  The only other country to ratify the fiscal compact is Greece, whose May parliamentary elections were so inconclusive that the country must hold a second set in June, which could very well result in electing Europe’s most anti-austerity government.

So why, in the face of so many reasons to junk the fiscal compact, which may not even be ratified by the rest of Europe, are Ireland’s voters set to approve it on Thursday? Continue reading Irish set to approve fiscal compact in Thursday referendum

Pro-referendum forces maintain momentum in Ireland

For me, one of the key questions about the recent French and Greek elections has been how those results would play in Ireland — would a firm anti-austerity wave across the continent make Irish voters more or less likely, in the upcoming May 31 referendum, to endorse the December fiscal compact agreed among all of the European Union members (except the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic)?

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the increasingly cynical response of Irish voters in these EU treaty referenda, the “Yes” vote camp still seems to be maintaining (or even strengthening) its lead over the “No” vote.  The latest poll shows 53% in favor of the treaty (an increase of 6% over the prior poll), with only 31% opposed.

The momentum comes even as German chancellor Angela Merkel finds herself increasingly on the defense against an emergent pro-growth (and anti-austerity) wing from both the periphery — e.g. Greece — and the heart — e.g. France, North Rhine-Westphalia — of the EU.

Say what you will about the current Eurocrisis, it is fascinating to watch the increasingly interlinked politics among the EU member states.  For the first time in EU history, notwithstanding decades of (politically meaningless?) European parliamentary elections, a bona fide European politics has emerged in the austerity/growth debate.  It transcends the traditional right/left axis of national politics and the very existential debate of federalism vs. intergovernmentalism.

Yesterday, Irish finance minister Michael Noonan argued that supporting the fiscal compact would send a message to the EU that Ireland is serious:

Mr Noonan said adopting the treaty will send a signal out to Europe that the Irish are serious, committed people, and committed to the repair job required for the economy.

If we vote No, he said, Europe will move on and we will be left with less than full membership of the eurozone.

To laughter from the audience at an economic summit organised by Bloomberg in Dublin this morning, Mr Noonan said he does not want Ireland to be a pavilion member of the eurozone “where you are allowed drink in the bar, but not play the course”. Continue reading Pro-referendum forces maintain momentum in Ireland