[Long Read] Perspective: Historic Elections In Northern Ireland, Will It Pave The Path For Irish Reunification?

Sagar Kar Debroy

May 07, 2022, 09:52 PM | Updated May 18, 2022, 12:26 AM IST

Violent unrest on April 2, 2021, in Belfast, Northern Ireland instated by 'loyalists'/protestants.
Violent unrest on April 2, 2021, in Belfast, Northern Ireland instated by 'loyalists'/protestants.
  • Present day politics and its significance
  • Sinn Féin set to be the biggest political force for first time in a century
  • Life in Northern Ireland
  • Throughline from present to past
  • Admirable competency of English policy makers (leaving the morally reprehensible nature of it aside)
  • The current situation: Elections were held on Thursday in Northern Ireland. At the time of writing this article, counting is still going on in Northern Ireland's assembly elections.

    Brief Perspective and small detour: Northern Ireland is a part of the UK but as a result of UK's policy of Devolution, it has devolved powers. Its seat of power is Stormont. Scotland and Wales too, like Northern Ireland, have devolved powers within the UK and their own First Ministers.

    The degree of devolved power each of these regions have varies. There have been movements in the UK that have sought devolved power and separate assembly for Northern England too. These demands have been the strongest in the Yorkshire region.

    Back to Northern Ireland: The two main parties are the protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the republican party Sinn Féin (catholics), who are set to win the most seats for the first time.

    Why the elections are historic? Well, for around a century, the DUP (protestants) have been the largest party. Since 1921 to be precise, the year when Northern Ireland was formed.

    At that time, Northern Ireland was designed to be a state which has an inbuilt unionist majority, an unionist protestant majority, ensuring it doesn't break away from the UK.

    [Unionists? Unionists = people/ political parties who are in favour of remaining within the United Kingdom. Protestants, in other words. Sinn Féin is their opposite, i.e. republicans, who are mostly catholics]

    Sinn Féin, From the Troubles to triumph: Northern Ireland's 'founders' wouldn't have expected that Sinn Féin, a party which was the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), would become the largest party in Northern Ireland one day (thanks to demographic trends).

    In the last assembly elections, the trends were clear. The republican Sinn Féin won 27 seats and the DUP won 28 seats.

    This time, Stormont will have as its largest party, a party which is ideologically against the existence of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin's ultimate goal is for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and reunite with the Republic of Ireland.

    Is Irish Reunification on the cards?

    Is an Irish reunification imminent? Not necessarily. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 ,which was signed after the Good Friday peace Agreement, mandates that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the UK and shan't cease to be a part of UK without consent from the majority of people in Northern Ireland voting in a poll (the border poll).

    According to Mary Lou McDonald, a party leader, her party is on the cusp of securing the post of first minister. She said planning for a unity referendum would come within a "five-year framework".

    Importance of securing the post of First Minister

    In Northern Ireland, the office of the first minister and deputy first minister is technically an equal one with joint power, but, the allocation of the titles is symbolically important.

    This is a bit complicated as Northern Ireland operates under a system called 'mandatory coalition'. For Sinn Féin to secure the post of first minister, the unionist assembly members would have to agree to power-sharing.

    Protestant DUP's leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said that he will not be nominating any ministers to the executive until the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol is resolved.

    Northern Ireland's complicated voting system

    Northern Ireland's voting system is quite different from voting systems we are familiar with and it is complicated.

    It's called the single transferable vote (STV) system of proportional representation. Unlike most elections we are familiar with, voters in Northern Ireland don't choose a single candidate.

    Voters choose candidates in order of their preference. Once their top-ranked candidate is elected or eliminated, their vote is allocated to their next-ranked candidate.

    This is why there are many stages of counting which takes several hours.

    Unnoticed and unheard reality of life in Northern Ireland

    'Peace wall' separating the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road in Belfast
    'Peace wall' separating the Protestant Shankill Road and the Catholic Falls Road in Belfast

    Northern Ireland receives minuscule coverage compared to the coverage Palestine or other conflict zones receive. A visit to these zones lays out the bare bones.

    It is easy to be misled as an outsider, when our views about a region are just formed on the basis of media coverage and the nature of media coverage it receives.

    One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the divisions and conflict have ended in Northern Ireland. That's the inversion of truth. What is worth admiring is the tact with which the Brits (the English) have kept this conflict out of public sight.

    Limitations of Indian media and sociological conditioning of Indians which restricts us aside, London has been quite successful in keeping the frozen conflict out of the public eye in England as well.

    The only time one catches a glimpse of the divisions in Northern Ireland is when one fills any government, volunteering or job application form in England.

    A question in the form reads, "Are you from Northern Ireland? If yes, please indicate if you are a protestant or a catholic."

    The writer of this article, yours faithfully, read this question for the first time whilst filling a form for volunteering in a hospice.

    The reaction was, "That's odd, why does this exist in the form, there is already a separate question on religious affiliation at the beginning of the form, so why this? Why is this relevant? That too in a post religious, post enlightenment society?....

    ...I vaguely know about 'terrorist' attacks in UK due to the IRA and private Americans funding it, have heard about the Troubles, but all that is gone, isn't it? It's all peaceful now, why this question? It's so odd."

    Perception of the English

    This reaction isn't that surprising, considering the fact that as a foreigner, it is expected one would have many blindspots about another country. Curiously, the reaction of many native English students too, was the same.

    After reading that form - 'it's a wee bit weird isn't it? You know what, this form almost gives the vibe that Northern Ireland is still some dark deeply divided place"; "why are they pretending that catholics and...

    ...protestants there don't even talk to each other, as if they live in separate worlds or something, to be honest, I feel like we are talking about Palestine or Kashmir, I mean c'mon, it is Belfast not West Bank!"

    To most foreigners residing in the UK and to most English natives as well, the idea of cities in Northern Ireland being any different from some other random British city just seems so odd and as a result hard to grasp, hard to process.

    The fact that the awareness level of average native brits is similar to the awareness level of foreigners, is striking.

    Brits increasingly don’t care whether Northern Ireland remains in UK
    Brits increasingly don’t care whether Northern Ireland remains in UK

    What is interesting is the fact that once Brits process the reality, a significant percentage of them, especially the younger population, don't really mind if Northern Ireland leaves the UK and reunifies with Ireland.

    Since the Good Friday agreement, the divisions in Northern Irish society have become much more stark. If one visits any city in Northern Ireland, they can't be ignored.

    First thing you'll notice is - walls. Not figuratively speaking 'walls' but physical walls. 'Peace' walls, they are called, euphemistically. These walls, which dot several cities, separate the Catholic and Protestant communities.

    With the passage of time, the number of these walls have gone up, not down. The view from your hotel room in Belfast is eerily similar to the view from the notorious 'Walled off hotel' in West Bank.

    The next thing is newspapers, people in these two communities read different newspapers which portray a completely different world. One might think, 'well, newspapers in India or America too portray completely different worlds'.

    Yes, it is true that publications have different values but there is a significant amount of overlap as well, which isn't appreciated. In Northern Ireland, there is almost no overlap.

    Schools: Most children go to schools which are either catholic or protestant. These aren't like Christian schools in India, where the schools are run by Christians but the classrooms, by and large, look like any other class room in India.

    These are schools which are in essence leading to a segregated society. In your most formative years of life, as a school child in Northern Ireland, if you are a Protestant, you'll mostly know people who are Protestant and if you are a Catholic, you'll mostly know people who are Catholic.

    Only a tiny sliver of schools are integrated schools and even in those schools, one community usually outnumbers the other. An integrated school, will in reality, be dominated by one community, with nominal presence of the other community.

    Sectarianism is one of the prime reasons people leave Northern Ireland. The lack of opportunities doesn't help either.

    Of all the regions in UK, Northern Ireland is, economically, the weakest. The few immigrants that do move in, arrive primarily for NHS (Britain's National Health Service) jobs. Most young people just want to move out.

    What the English over successive generations have done is this - they have ensured that this region of the world has enough internal problems so that it'll never even have the room to focus on something else, and as a result pose a risk to English supremacy in the region.

    In this regard, the fate of the Irish is quite similar to the fate of Indians. It's not just the famines, although that too.

    Maa Sharda and Sister Nivedita
    Maa Sharda and Sister Nivedita

    The erstwhile English policymakers successfully turned the conflict between Ireland and England into a sectarian conflict, whereas in reality it is anything but that.

    The roots of the conflict go back to a time when there were no catholics or protestants but Celtic people and Anglo-Saxons. They go back to a time when the Anglo Saxons fought the Celts with the intention of annihilating them.

    This wasn't the first time that a war of annihilation was waged against the Celts. The Romans in fact intended to carry out a holocaust against the Celts, which they nearly did.

    Portrait of Theobald Wolfe Tone, a protestant, who was one of the most seminal leaders of Irish nationalism.
    Portrait of Theobald Wolfe Tone, a protestant, who was one of the most seminal leaders of Irish nationalism.

    Each July, Protestants burn large bonfires to ritually commemorate Protestant King William of Orange's victory over Catholic King James in 1690. The continuation of this ritual reminds us of the success of English policy makers and their shrewd nature.

    Their success in painting the conflict as a religious conflict (between catholics and protestants), as a result ensuring significant number of people in Northern Ireland do not support the reunification, granted them a leverage (practically a veto) on Ireland's fate.

    It was a work of political ingenuity and moral reprehensibility.

    Sadly, very few protestants in Northern Ireland remember the fact that some of the most prominent leaders of the Irish Rebellion of 1798 were Protestants.

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