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The General Election of 2015 in Northern Ireland – plus ça change

March 30, 2015

I have written this blog for my employers General Election blog. Look forward to cross posting.


WHILE the General Election in England, Scotland and Wales promises to produce the most fractured Parliament in living memory, with Scots Nationalists and UKIP predicted to get their most Westminster seats ever, in Northern Ireland it seems a case of plus ça change.

It had been hoped that the religious and political binary fault line between Catholic/ Nationalist/ Irish and Protestant/ Unionist/ British was something that 20 years of the Peace Process would begin to erode.

However, despite a devolved Assembly which enshrines representation of all political identities, and billions of pounds in Peace Process money financing multiple cross community initiatives to build a post conflict society, this election sees Northern Ireland as divided as it ever was.

Northern Ireland returns 18 MPs to Westminster and this time round their support could be vital in the formation of any Government that follows the likelihood of a hung Parliament.

The Unionist parties: the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, which has links to the neo-Conservative Christian right, and the Ulster Unionist Party, which was the traditionally strongest establishment party in Northern Ireland until quite recently, have traditionally supported the Tories in Westminster.

In recent months there have been two major developments in their importance in Westminster circles.

Firstly, to combat the threat of Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Provisional IRA, which has made the dramatic move from the political margins to leading Nationalist party, the Unionist parties have agreed an electoral pact to only run one pro-unionist candidate in four constituencies.

The move is aimed at not splitting the vote in constituencies where Sinn Féin is the strongest Nationalist contender, including in North Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone, the latter of which became symbolically important after the election of the Hunger Striker Bobby Sands in 1981.

The DUP, assured of keeping at least seven of its current eight MPs, and winning back its leader Peter Robinson’s East Belfast seat, has reportedly demanded financial reward for supporting whichever government is formed after May 7.

The Independent noted that Ian Paisley Jnr, son of the radical Protestant DUP leader, said the party, “will seek up to a billion pounds more funding for Northern Ireland as the price of keeping a Tory or Labour government in power.”

Given its firebrand religious origins and recent history of support for Christian crusades against abortion and marriage equality, it’s very hard to see the DUP supporting a Labour government.

More importantly, the Unionist pact only works because of the narrow identity lines down which Northern Ireland’s communities remain split. Protestants will vote for their own – especially against Sinn Féin.

Dr Kevin Bean has noted that Sinn Féin’s rise from radical separatist agitator to the largest party in Catholic Nationalist community is largely down to how it has transformed itself to encapsulate its role as the key defender of Catholic Nationalist identity politics. The new Catholic middle class has come to see Sinn Féin as the natural defender of Catholic Nationalist rights against the neo-Con assault of the DUP.

In this instance there is one major issue for this election: Sinn Féin does not recognize the British state and its MPs will not swear allegiance to the Queen, therefore it does not take seats at Westminster. Therefore it cannot court the favour of any party seeking to make a Government.

Even if Sinn Féin did, it’s unlikely the Tories would seek the support of a party which supported the bombing of its conference at the Grand Hotel in Brighton 1984.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), born out of the Catholic civil rights movement of the late 1960s, was the largest Nationalist party until 2001. Since then Sinn Féin has largely usurped it in all but three constituencies. There has been no electoral pact in Nationalist Catholic politics and the SDLP might see its influence decline further this time round.

Therefore, with the exception of the hugely affluent North Down constituency, Northern Ireland’s millionaire Gold Coast, which has the independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon as MP, Northern Ireland’s 2015 election should just divide down largely religious lines.

As a barometer of the Peace Process’s brief to reform the polarized nature of Northern Irish society, General Election 2015 could be its most damning indictment.

Journalist Damian Wilson, whose tweet is pictured above, captured the true nature of the election when he stated on Twitter: “Wish (the) Shinners (Sinn Féin) and SDLP would get on with their pact so we can forget about elections and just count names on church registers.”

Plus ça change.

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