FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Democracy Delayed in Northern Ireland

If you take the long view, perhaps the most striking story of last Wednesday’s elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly is this one: the party that ruled the “Protestant state for a Protestant people” for most of its history after the partition of Ireland was outpolled by a movement that up to a decade ago was in armed insurrection against that state.
Given Ireland’s alleged obsession with history, that story, of Sinn Fein overtaking the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in the popular vote, has been remarkably little noted. In fact, you would hardly know the two parties were competing in the same election. Instead, the election has been widely portrayed as two separate polls: one for supremacy among the Catholic/nationalist minority, in which Sinn Fein decisively overtook the SDLP (of which John Hume has retired as leader); and one contest for votes from the unionist majority, in which Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) trumped David Trimble’s UUP.

The bifurcated election, then, was united by a single headline, probably found somewhere in your local paper wherever in the world you’re reading this: “Hardliners triumphant”. Hume and Trimble may have picked up the Nobel Peace Prize, but it’s Gerry Adams, with his shady IRA past, and Paisley, with his fire-and-brimstone bigotry, who picked up the votes in their respective contests.

For a change, you can’t blame the media for the sectarian presentation of double results. It’s completely logical within the sectarian terms of the ‘power-sharing’ arrangement in Northern Ireland: government there must have the support of a majority in ‘both communities’, which means every elected ‘MLA’ (member of the legislative assembly) must tick a box to declare which side she or he is on. Thus the Alliance Party, which spent decades insisting it was neither/nor, opted for ‘unionism’ after the 1998 elections; Kieran Deeny, an independent newly elected on a protest vote in West Tyrone to preserve local hospital services, will have to declare (probably for ‘nationalism’) before he can start fighting for his constituents of whatever persuasion.

That’s why the DUP scored a decisive victory against the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, with just 27 per cent of the vote and 30 seats in the absurdly oversized 108-member assembly (itself a sort of welfare service designed to spread the booty of good government among a sceptical populace). Their majority of the unionist half of the equation, bolstered by a handful of anti-agreement individuals among Trimble’s elected UUP colleagues, means government can’t happen without Paisley’s blessing, even though pro-agreement nationalists and unionists together constitute a sizeable majority of the new assembly.

So the election campaign, already delayed when the British government got nervous last spring about the likely outcome, and begun stutteringly earlier this autumn after a Trimble-engineered fiasco over IRA ‘decommissioning’, has ended, only to give way not to a new government, but to the familiar scenario of bilateral meetings, talks about talks etc. The word games have already begun: do we need a ‘new agreement’? ‘Negotiations’? A ‘revised agreement’? A ‘review’? A ‘re-review’? (Will the present stalemate make the British more or less likely to propose a similar sectarian power-sharing arrangement for a new Iraqi ‘democracy’?)

Already the media seek cracks in the Paisleyite edifice, identifying the younger DUP smoothies who, we suspect, will eventually sit down with Sinn Fein (or “sup with Satan”, as the party leader might have it) if that’s the only way to a ministerial Mercedes. Gerry Adams appealed, smirkingly, directly to the Reverend himself: Christianity, Adams said, is all about “dialogue, conversation, and dealing with sinners”. No doubt thinking punningly of the nickname for members of his party, ‘Shinners’, Adams continued: “As a sinner, I offer myself on behalf of those I represent to be converted by Dr Paisley to his vision of the future.”

The institutionalization of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland only serves to make such miraculous conversions all the more unlikely. The cross-community Women’s Alliance took a battering in this election; the left-leaning Progressive Unionist Party, which despite its links to the paramilitary Ulster Voluntary Force has occasionally sounded open to nationalist arguments, was also badly dented; journalist Eamonn McCann, probably the most dedicated and admired socialist campaigner in Ireland over three-and-a-half decades, ran, hard, on a red-green ticket in his native Derry and got a fairly disappointing 5 per cent of first-preference votes, leaving him nowhere near the assembly.

You have to admire many of the individuals in Sinn Fein (e.g. Caitriona Ruane, a new MLA whose efforts on behalf of the ‘Colombia 3’ have been covered in CounterPunch). The party’s leadership has done extraordinarily well to preserve the IRA ceasefire while making historic compromises with unionism and the British government; they’ve got a helluva electoral machine to boot. But as Sinn Fein makes the by-now-familiar Irish trek from being a revolutionary movement to being a ‘slightly constitutional’ party of capitalist government (e.g. a Sinn Fein minister was in charge of health-service cutbacks in Northern Ireland under the last executive), one would hope that a clear political alternative would emerge on the left.

It hasn’t, despite the considerable advantage in these assembly elections of a PR system involving six-seat constituencies with a single transferable vote, roughly the same electoral system that applies in the Republic of Ireland. In US terms, it would mean you could vote for your favourite commie feminist for president; then see your vote shift to your number-two, say Nader, once she was eliminated from the count; and eventually watch it elect, gulp, Howard Dean, who would then know indisputably that he’d pushed past Dubya thanks to the low-preference ballots of left-wing voters. And you’d be drunk enough after 16 hours in front of the television watching umpteen counts of redistributed votes that you might even think that was a good thing.

Counterpuncher HARRY BROWNE is a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology and a recently fired columnist for the Irish Times! He can be contacted at harrybrowne@eircom.net

 

 

More articles by:

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne

January 16, 2019
Patrick Bond
Jim Yong Kim’s Mixed Messages to the World Bank and the World
John Grant
Joe Biden, Crime Fighter from Hell
Alvaro Huerta
Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
Kenneth Surin
A Great Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons
Elizabeth Henderson
Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, Bolton and the Syrian Confusion
Jeff Mackler
Trump’s Syria Exit Tweet Provokes Washington Panic
Barbara Nimri Aziz
How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: When Just One Man Says, “No”
Cesar Chelala
Violence Against Women: A Pandemic No Longer Hidden
Kim C. Domenico
To Make a Vineyard of the Curse: Fate, Fatalism and Freedom
Dave Lindorff
Criminalizing BDS Trashes Free Speech & Association
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: The Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party: Part Two
Edward Curtin
A Gentrified Little Town Goes to Pot
January 15, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Refugees Are in the English Channel Because of Western Interventions in the Middle East
Howard Lisnoff
The Faux Political System by the Numbers
Lawrence Davidson
Amos Oz and the Real Israel
John W. Whitehead
Beware the Emergency State
John Laforge
Loudmouths against Nuclear Lawlessness
Myles Hoenig
Labor in the Age of Trump
Jeff Cohen
Mainstream Media Bias on 2020 Democratic Race Already in High Gear
Dean Baker
Will Paying for Kidneys Reduce the Transplant Wait List?
George Ochenski
Trump’s Wall and the Montana Senate’s Theater of the Absurd
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Glenn Sacks
On the Picket Lines: Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike for First Time in 30 Years
Jonah Raskin
Love in a Cold War Climate
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party
January 14, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Tears of Justin Trudeau
Julia Stein
California Needs a 10-Year Green New Deal
Dean Baker
Declining Birth Rates: Is the US in Danger of Running Out of People?
Robert Fisk
The US Media has Lost One of Its Sanest Voices on Military Matters
Vijay Prashad
5.5 Million Women Build Their Wall
Nicky Reid
Lessons From Rojava
Ted Rall
Here is the Progressive Agenda
Robert Koehler
A Green Future is One Without War
Gary Leupp
The Chickens Come Home to Roost….in Northern Syria
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: “The Country Is Watching”
Sam Gordon
Who Are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists?
Weekend Edition
January 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Richard Moser
Neoliberalism: Free Market Fundamentalism or Corporate Power?
Paul Street
Bordering on Fascism: Scholars Reflect on Dangerous Times
Joseph Majerle III – Matthew Stevenson
Who or What Brought Down Dag Hammarskjöld?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
How Tre Arrow Became America’s Most Wanted Environmental “Terrorist”
Andrew Levine
Dealbreakers: The Democrats, Trump and His Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail