Tag Archives: Democratic Unionist Party

Political problems mount on both sides of Irish border

Political turmoil is growing on the island of Ireland. Each new development complicates the other. Here’s a quick summary:

  • The minority government coalition in the Republic of Ireland is on the verge of collapse. The opposition Fianna Fail party is threatening to break the three-year deal it made with the Fine Gael party just 18 months ago. A dispute over a police whistleblower case is the surface reason, but don’t be fooled: this arranged marriage was rocky from the start. If  Fianna Fail walks, Irish voters may have to trudge to the polls before Christmas.
  • As Reuters reports, this crisis comes three weeks ahead of a European Union summit in which the Irish government has an effective veto on whether Britain’s talks on leaving the bloc (Brexit) meet the Republic’s concerns about the future of the border with Northern Ireland. A weakened Irish government means less power at the bargaining table.
  • In Northern Ireland, the power-sharing Assembly has been suspended since January, when the nationalist Sinn Fein withdrew from government over concerns about the role of Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster in a renewable energy scheme. The New York Times does a good job of piecing together the ensuing events. “This is a more profound crisis than we’ve had at other times in the last 20 years,” said a member of the Alliance Party, a smaller centrist group that does not identify as either nationalist or unionist.
  • Complicating the border issues, Foster has written to the leaders of all 27 E.U. countries, telling them that Northern Ireland will not tolerate any difference in status between itself and the rest of the United Kingdom, after Brexit. She wants Northern Ireland to remain identified with the U.K. rather than any special arrangement with the Republic, as Sinn Fein wants. This reduces the chance of compromise on restoring the Assembly.
  • Remember, earlier this year Foster also entered into coalition government with British PM Theresa May.  As The Guardian reports, Foster now accuses the Irish government of exploiting Brexit to attempt to unify Ireland.
  • The ongoing Brexit negotiations, and what happens to the government in the Republic, will continue to impact Northern Ireland. Given the current difficulties, there may be calls to renegotiate the governing framework of the Good Friday Agreement, which reaches its 20th anniversary in April. Or political control may simply revert to London, a huge step backward. Next year also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and start of the Anglo-Irish War, which resulted in the island’s partition in 1921. Foster is right, in that talk of a referendum to reunify the island is only likely to increase.

Map of Ireland from the 1920s shows the partition of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, later the Republic of Ireland.

U.S. media plays sectarian card in N.I. election coverage

News of Sinn Féin‘s big gains in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is reaching American media outlets, and with it the usual sectarian shorthand that has virtually disappeared from Irish and British coverage.

While Jewish-Muslim tension remains fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Catholic-Protestant animosity has a shrinking role in today’s Northern Ireland political narrative. But the storyline remains catnip to many U.S. news outlets.

Here’s the top of The New York Times‘ Assembly election coverage, which appeared at the bottom of page 10 of the 5 March print issue:

Sinn Féin, the main Catholic nationalist party in Northern Ireland, won its greatest number of legislative seats ever after a snap election this weekend, creating a virtual tie with its Protestant rivals and throwing nearly two decades of peaceful power sharing into turmoil.

This is an improvement over the 16 January Times’ story reporting the pending election:

Voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls on March 2 in a snap election that was forced by the main Catholic party, Sinn Féin, after the collapse of a regional government in which Catholics and Protestants shared power.

The newer story introduces the concept of a nationalist party — instead of simply Catholic –in the first sentence. In the January story, the word nationalist isn’t used at all. The fourth paragraph does explain: “Sinn Féin wants Northern Ireland to stay in the European Union and eventually reunite with Ireland.” The word unionism is introduced in the same graph. Both stories were written by Sinead O’Shea.

The Washington Post published an Associated Press story on its website, though none has appeared in print as of 5 March. Here’s the lede:

Northern Ireland’s snap election has left the rival extremes of politics virtually neck and neck for the first time — and facing a bruising battle to put their Catholic-Protestant government back together again in an increasingly polarized landscape. The big winner from Saturday’s final results to fill the Northern Ireland Assembly is the Irish nationalist party that triggered the vote, Sinn Féin.

“Unionist” doesn’t appear until the fifth paragraph, in the formal name Democratic Unionist Party, then a graph later as lowercase “unionists committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.”

The descriptions could benefit from modifiers such as “predominantly Catholic nationalists” or “historically Protestant unionists,” leaving room for those who do not fit the easy stereotype. We are a long way from the days of “Home Rule is Rome Rule.” Northern Ireland is increasingly diverse in its religious (or non-religious), racial and political make up. Winners of 13 of 90 seats in this election are from parties or independents that eschew traditional Catholic or Protestant affiliation. Their 14.4 percent share is up from 12.9 percent in the May 2016 election.

Think it’s impossible for U.S. media to avoid this sectarian shorthand? NPR’s coverage, by Colin Dwyer, shows how the basic political divide can be explained without using religious identifiers.

When the dust finally settled Saturday on Northern Ireland’s snap assembly election, it became clear a new political reality now awaits voters there. After an exceedingly strong showing by Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s government is split all but down the middle between Irish nationalists and their pro-British counterparts.

The story does not use the words Catholic or Protestant.  Only an online photo caption describes “the Catholic Falls Road” in Belfast. The word nationalist appears three times in this story, lowercase unionist four times, plus an additional reference to the Democratic Unionists.

The opening of The Irish Timeselection wrap-up is representative of how Northern politics is reported on the island of Ireland, and in Britain. Note the use of the word republican instead of nationalist:

Sinn Féin has emerged as the biggest winner in the North’s Assembly election after the party came to within one seat of matching the Democratic Unionist return of 28 seats. In a dramatic shake-up, unionists lost their long-enduring and highly symbolic overall majority in Stormont as the republican party came very close to securing more first preference votes than the DUP.

Peace walls, right, gated roads , center, and boarded windows are reminders of the lingering Catholic-Protestant divide in Belfast. Mark Holan photo, July 2016.

I’m not saying sectarian labels are never used in Irish and British media coverage, but they are becoming as sparse as people in Northern Ireland church pews. I wonder if these newsrooms have made conscious decisions to keep religious affiliation out of their political coverage.

To be sure, the “peace walls” separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast are a stark reminder that sectarianism still exists in Northern Ireland. And the U.S. media coverage does include the important contemporary context of Brexit and the Northern Ireland renewable energy scandal.

Alan Bairner wrote a chapter about international and local media coverage of the Troubles in the 1996 book, Northern Ireland Politics, edited by Arthur Aughey and Duncan Morrow. Remember, this was more than 20 years ago, and two years before the Good Friday Agreement.

Certainly the people of Northern Ireland could have no grounds for complaint about the levels of interest shown by the international media, although they were frequently uneasy about the quality of the analysis which resulted from that media interest. … There is little evidence, for example, that British or, indeed, international coverage of the Troubles had a significant impact on the views of people in Northern Ireland itself. Most Northern Irish people formulate political views on the basis of numerous factors and their reaction to media output, regardless of its aim, is more or less predetermined.

And the local press coverage?

It would be preposterous to suggest that the owners and editors of Northern Ireland’s local newspapers are responsible for the divisions in their society. It is undeniable, however, that their papers, through the choice of stories which are published and even the use of language to tell these stories, give voice to the rival perspectives of the two communities and, as a consequence, give added strength to these perspectives in the eyes of those who hold them. Therefore, local papers as well as the [Protestant] News Letter and the [Catholic] Irish News have helped to reproduce sectarian attitudes and in so doing they have become complicit in the maintenance of the politics of division.

(I added the paragraph beginning “Such descriptions … ” and made other minor revisions from the original post. MH)

Northern Ireland voters return to the polls 2 March

Only 10 months have passed since Northern Ireland voters selected assembly representatives. Now, fresh polling takes place 2 March, prompted by the January resignation of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the former deputy first minister. His move, in protest of a troubled renewable energy scheme overseen by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister Arlene Foster, collapsed the power-sharing government. McGuinness also is in poor health and will not seek re-election.

The Irish Times says:

Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin is challenged by a collapse of trust and respect. Since other parties are unlikely to get enough seats, a prolonged period of direct rule [from London] is probable. That would come just as the British government invokes Brexit, creating huge uncertainty about the border [with the Republic] and hence the peace process itself. This issue has not had the attention or debate it deserves in the campaign.

The election outcome is made more unpredictable due to a previously scheduled reduction of the assembly to 90 seats, or five members for each of the 18 constituencies, from the previous allotment of 108 seats, or six representatives per district. This could upset the final balance of power.

Votes will be counted 3 March, and full results should be known by 4 March. Here are landing pages for major media coverage of the election:

And here’s a full 16 February debate among the major party leaders:

Election drama builds in Ireland, north and south

This is an important week in Irish politics on both sides of the border.

In the Republic, negotiators from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil continue their intensive talks on forming a new government. A key leadership vote is tentatively set for 14 April, which is 48 days since the 26 February election.

Ireland’s record for going without a government is 48 days, when a November 1992 election failed to produce a coalition pact until January 1993, according to the Associated Press. Now, if the two major parities and incoming small party and independent members fail to reach a deal soon, calls for a second election are likely to increase. That hasn’t happened since 1982.

Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly building in Belfast.

Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly building in Belfast.

In Ulster, campaigning is heating up for the 5 May Northern Ireland Assembly election, with the first debate among leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Féin, Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Alliance Party set for 13 April.

This is the fifth such election since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 created the historic power-sharing legislature. Voters will cast ballots for 108 members from 18 constituencies in the six counties.

Notably, the generation born in 1998 and a few years earlier will be able to vote for the first time in this election. That could either soften or harden recent electoral trends. In a preview, the London School of Economics and Political Science observes:

In 1998, the (moderate) SDLP was the party with most votes in the Assembly, while the (moderate) UUP was the party with most seats. In the 2003 election, the (stronger pro-British) DUP took the most votes and seats, and (stronger Irish nationalist) Sinn Féin moved from being the fourth largest party, to the second largest party. In 2007 this trend consolidated, when the sum of votes for the DUP and SF reached 56%. By 2011, the DUP and SF were the undisputed largest parties in the system, leaving the SDLP, the UUP, and the Alliance significantly behind.

The northern vote not only comes on the heels of the still-unresolved election outcome in the Republic, but also ahead of the 23 June referendum on whether the U.K. (including Northern Ireland) remains in the E.U. All of which puts the lie to notions that the U.S. is the only place having interesting elections this year.

Ulster Unionists gain seats in U.K. elections

The Ulster Unionist Party picked up two seats — one from the Democratic Unionist Party, the other from Sinn Féin — among Northern Ireland races in the 7 May U.K elections. The wins return UUP representation to Westminster after a five year absence.

The DUP remains the North’s largest party, retaining eight of the 18 seats. It made up for the loss to the UUP by taking a seat from Alliance, a nonsectarian party that advocates cooperation between nationalist and unionists.

Republican Sinn Féin has four seats, the nationalist Social Democrat and Labor Party has three seats, and party independent Sylvia Hermon retained her North Down seat.

“The election in Northern Ireland began with nationalists holding eight seats and unionists 10 seats,” The Irish Times reported. “It ended with unionists gaining an extra seat from Sinn Féin leaving the overall result, 11 unionists against 7 nationalists.”

Here are full results and analysis from the BBC.