By Campaign Agent William Fawcett
After the astounding results of the 2017 election, eradicating the Conservative majority and leaving them just shy of a majority, much of the country’s attention has been directed towards Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party, usually abbreviated as the DUP, has promised to support a Conservative minority government in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement. Although this is short of a formal coalition, it enables the Conservatives as the largest party to form a government for the next 5 years, barring another election of course.
The Northern Irish government and the parties that compete in the elections are completely different to those of mainland Britain. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats choose to not field candidates there, and although the Conservatives under their Northern Ireland branch do put forward candidates, none are currently in government. Instead, a plethora of Northern Irish parties split down Nationalist and Unionist lines vie to gain as many seats as possible in the Houses of Parliament and the Northern Irish devolved assembly (in separate elections).
First of all, the two main parties that compete in the UK General Elections are Sinn Fein, a Nationalist Republican party that stemmed from the IRA, and the DUP, a Unionist and Loyalist party that advocates a Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom as currently exists. Several other parties exist along the Nationalist-Unionist continuum, such as the SDLP who enjoyed large Nationalist support during the Troubles, whilst the UUP and the TUV represent the Unionist voices in Northern Ireland, with the former being more moderate than both the TUV and the DUP. Cross-cutting the sectarian divisions are the Alliance party (with connections with the Liberal Democrats), the Greens and the People Before Profit Alliance, a Trotskyist far-left party. However, as of the 2017 elections, only the DUP and Sinn Fein were elected into the House of Commons by winning 10 and 7 seats respectively, alongside 1 Independent.
After the successful 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which put an end to 30 years militant sectarian fighting between the Irish Republicans and Ulster Loyalists, a devolved Northern Irish Assembly was created in 2007. Elected under a Proportional Representation (PR) system, the two sides exist under a power-sharing agreement in which the DUP (28) and Sinn Fein (27) make up the majority of the 90-seat Assembly. One major difference in the Assembly is that Sinn Fein actually takes their seats, as opposed to the UK Parliament where they follow a fierce policy of abstentionism. Indeed the lack of Sinn Fein MPs in the Commons often leads to a reduction in the number of seats that a party and/or coalition requires constituting a majority in Parliament; in the most recent election only 323 seats were needed as 7 Sinn Fein MPs were elected.
The rift between Irish Nationalism and Unionism is a very sensitive issue and one that has given the British government a headache ever since the mid-1800s when Irish support for Home Rule from the UK was born. From 1919-1922 Ireland witnessed a revolutionary war that resulted in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty creating the Irish Free State, a self-governing Dominion of the British Empire. The Free State encompassed 5/6th of the island, whilst the 6 counties in the North were incorporated into the UK as Northern Ireland. During this conflict, Irish Republicanism was born, proclaiming an independent Irish State. In 1937 after fraught relations with Britain, the Irish adopted a new Constitution and officially became the Republic of Ireland that we know today. It left the Commonwealth soon thereafter and joined the UN in 1955.
However, not only does the issue of land bisect the Unionists from the Nationalists, religion also plays a huge role in these deep-rooted divisions. Around 41% of the Northern Irish population alongside the DUP adheres to Protestantism, whilst 40% of the population lead by Sinn Fein as well as most of Southern Ireland remains traditionally Catholic. The connection between Protestantism and Unionism emanates from the British colonial settlements in the North over centuries gone by, whilst the majority of the Southern Irish population is traditionally Catholic. Nowhere else is the religious cleavage more evident than in Belfast, where Peace Walls now prevent communities from aggressively engaging one another and murals of both sides passionately stake their territory.
The DUP rejected the 1998 Agreement that brought the two camps together, although its founder Ian Paisley later accepted the St. Andrews Agreement in 2006 that created the Assembly. This has, in turn, led to more extreme views in certain parts of the Unionist camp, such as outright rejection of any power-sharing coalition. Arlene Foster is the current leader who has recently lent her hand out to Theresa May in joining forces, as the two resemble each other socially and economically. However, it is likely that she will push for a ‘soft Brexit’ in order to avoid the worrying impacts of having a hard border placed between the UK and Ireland.
Many fear that 10 DUP MPs propping up a British government could reignite the unrest that had lain dormant since the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsing several times following disagreements between the two sides, the territory has long enjoyed its time away from the front pages. Both sides were guilty of atrocities and blatant human rights violations during the Troubles, in some instances in collusion with the British authorities. Sinn Fein has its origins in the IRA and strongly resents British occupation of the North, whilst the DUP has the backing of several paramilitary groups such as the UDA who brutally targeted the Catholic population during the Troubles. Nevertheless, in a place of such vehement sectarian, religious and nationalist tensions that rival those of the Balkans, Northern Ireland must be treated with prudence and sensibility. Only time will tell whether the DUP being the ‘kingmaker’ of the British government is an appropriate position.
Image rights: Northern Ireland Executive @ Flickr