Anger and impotence in Northern Ireland's elections

Will a snap election in Northern Ireland bring about the change that so many want?

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
20 February 2017
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Poster on the Falls Road, Belfast. Image: Adam Ramsay

Once I’d sung “Flower of Scotland”, they seemed to trust me a little more. I’d gone into Boyle’s on the Falls Road to ask people how they were voting in the coming election. But if I was honest, I suspected I knew the answer: pretty much everyone else I’d spoken to on this famous street at the heart of Republican West Belfast, the safest constituency in the UK, had said they were voting Sinn Fein. It turned out to be more complicated than that.

The bar was surrounded by men: middle aged and older, all at least a pint down at midday and chatting together in the way that crowds of regulars do. The first bloke I spoke to told me that the Shinners had done nothing for him, and he’d be backing People Before Profit, the newish socialist grouping which got its first two seats in the elections in May. Next was a tall and raucous man probably in his sixties who insisted he and I sing Scotland’s unofficial national anthem together (he knew all three verses, more than many of my Scottish friends), and then got me to put my finger in a dent in his skull which he claimed came from a ricocheted bullet during the Troubles. He said he wouldn’t be voting. Stormont is a British institution, and “we need a United Ireland”. But a man on a bar stool next to him insisted quietly that his friend would in fact show up when it came to it – and would back Sinn Fein. The third man in what seemed to be a trio at this side of the bar mumbled that he wasn’t voting either, and his friend explained that “he’s a Sticky”.

At the other end of the bar, a quiet man who seemed more sober than the rest wore a ‘Celtic antifascist’ T-shirt and a hat. He and his friend wouldn’t be voting either: you have to bring Stormont down to get a United Ireland, they argued. They might not win a border poll yet, but one day. He turned out to be Patrick Livingstone, who in 2013 was finally cleared of the murder of Samuel Llewellyn in 1975, for which he had spent 17 years in jail. The court quashed his conviction because the only evidence against him was a ‘confession’, and his claims that this had been extracted through torture hadn’t been properly investigated at the time of the original trial.

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Patrick Livingstone's T-shirt.

The election in Northern Ireland was triggered when Sinn Fein withdrew from the government as a result of a Democratic Unionist Party financial scandal – the scum at the surface of a very deep pool, if community leaders I spoke to in Belfast are to be believed. And while this Renewable Heat Incentive scam certainly came up with more than one voter I spoke to in my weekend trip, it seemed more important as the confirmation of broader suspicion than in and of itself. Many have long suspected the Democratic Unionists of corruption. The revelation that an obscure government scheme allowed those in the know to claim £1.60 in subsidy for every pound of wood chip they burned – totaling something in the region of half a billion pounds – has simply acted as corroboration.

The stench of this ‘cash for ash’ controversy does seem to have had some impact. The most remarkable thing about a day’s canvassing with the Greens in South Belfast is how many older voters are undecided: over 65s rarely switch from their traditional party, but many of the campaigners I spoke to at the end of a day of door-knocking had found the same as me: numerous pensioners said that they were fed up with the same old, same old, and are thinking of looking elsewhere. If, as seemed likely, these were DUP voters struggling to maintain their support for their old party, then Arlene Foster is in trouble, long term. I left with the same feeling as the last time I was talking to Loyalist voters in Belfast: they seem to feel much like Scottish Labour voters did in the mid-noughties: that they ‘have to’ vote for their party, but they’d really rather not.


An Ulster Volunteer Force mural in the Broadway area of Belfast. The UVF killed at least 485 people during the Troubles.

Of course, not everyone has been put off the DUP. For Keith, a father to six living on Broadway, a Loyalist area painted with murals for the prohibited Protestant terrorist group the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal just shows that “they’re all at it”. The scheme was a mistake, for sure. And it was exploited by the well off, he concedes. But his experience of the DUP is through their local representative – a “good Christian” man who fought for homes in the area and plays football with the children on the local park (which had the beginnings of a pile of wood for a bonfire when I passed through it). An older Loyalist couple on the Shankhill Road thought that the £500 million or so cost of the scheme was nothing to what Sinn Fein had done to the country, as they saw it, and a young woman standing with a friend outside a car-wash, also on the Loyalist Shankhill Road, was still planning to vote for the DUP (“what are they called again? Is it ‘DUP’? Yes, them”.) Her friend, though, had voted for them in the previous election in May, but said she wasn’t planning to show up this time.

If allegations of corruption against the DUP are a trigger of this election though, it’s taking place in the context of three significant changes. First, the last year or so has seen the leaders of Northern Ireland’s two biggest parties change. The personal relationship between Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and the DUP’s old leader Ian Paisley, despite representing parties embedded deep in two embittered communities, was famously so positive that they were known as ‘the Chuckle Brothers’, and such links were key to the peace process. The same cannot be said for new DUP leader Arlene Foster and the newer Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neil.

The second is the grinding austerity which the DUP have been bound to politically: it’s easy to forget that the Assembly nearly collapsed only two years ago, as Sinn Fein refused to support social security cuts, and the DUP failed to condemn the budget cuts passed to their government from Westminster. And the third, of course, is Brexit and with it the imminent fear of a return to a hard border.

“If you send the lads round with baseball bats, people accuse you of racism”

While most people in Northern Ireland voted to Remain, the Loyalist community leant heavily towards Leave. For Keith, the reason is simple: he’d watched all of the debates, and didn’t believe anything Boris Johnson said about the NHS and its funding. But “it’s about immigration”. And while he isn’t sure that Brexit in itself will automatically turn the numbers coming into the country, he thinks it “sends a strong message to the government”. “Loyalist communities are having immigrants imposed on them”, he says, despite the fact that he’s standing in one of the most ethnically and culturally homogenous urban areas in Western Europe. And he believes that this is putting pressure on nursery and school places. He insists he isn’t racist, and says that immigration can sometimes bring benefits, but it needs to be controlled: “in a house just over there, six illegal immigrants moved in. The family next door have been here forever, but they can’t put up with it anymore: all the rubbish, all the noise. And what are you meant to do? If you send the lads round with baseball bats, people accuse you of racism”.

Up on the Falls Road, Imad is concerned not to express his views too loudly (and so I’ve changed his name). “I live in a Protestant area, my children go to a Catholic school, and I am black, so I need to be careful what I say”. Like many, he is fed up with the lack of transparency in Northern Irish politics, and particularly with the DUP. He wants to vote for a party which respects diversity and “the interests of the whole country” and for him, this time, that’s Sinn Fein, whose large lamp-post placards call for “Respect for All” and “Marriage Equality Now”.

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Election posters on the Falls Road.

His particular anger, though, is reserved for Theresa May and for Brexit. “She isn’t listening to the will of the people here” he says, pointing out that Northern Ireland voted Remain. As a result, he believes, “the UK is over”. If there was a referendum on joining the Republic of Ireland, he would now vote to do so.

Living in the shadow of the vast barrier separating the Falls and Shankhill roads, Lisa says “there was a shooting at the end of the road there this week, so I’ve been kind of distracted from politics”. Her partner was killed in a hit and run car accident a few years ago, and she says she’s not really focussed on elections. She does know who she’ll be voting for though: “Catholics never used to have a say, and now we kind of do because of Sinn Fein.

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The security barrier dividing the Catholic Falls Road area from the Protestant Shankhill Road area of Belfast. Image: Adam Ramsay

Back in the city centre, I run into a barrister who doesn’t tell me his name and insists he isn’t political. “People are trying to persuade me to vote” he says. But he feels that, as a moderate Christian, no one represents him. “In the past, moderate Christians had the SDLP and the UUP, depending whether you are Protestant or Catholic, but they don’t represent us anymore” he says. At the same time, though, the DUP are too extreme for him. And so he may not bother to vote at all.

The number of seats in the Assembly is being slashed, with each constituency going from six to five Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and the total number falling from 108 to 90. In response, most parties seem to have adopted a strategic defensiveness – protecting what they have rather than seeking to sweep the other parties aside. While the Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party – the second parties of unionism and nationalism respectively – seem to be trying to maintain the appearance of an alternative cross-community government to the DUP and Sinn Fein, in reality, they aren’t even running enough candidates between them to form a majority in the Assembly.

If anyone had the resources to mount a large scale challenge to a political establishment which most people are fed up with, I’d be predicting some significant changes. If it wasn’t for the shrinking seat numbers, I’d expect to see a surge in smaller parties. As it is, a much loathed status quo will probably find itself re-elected on the second of March, if with a slight limp. The DUP's ace up their sleeve – fear that Sinn Fein will become the biggest party – may well still work. But they can't keep playing it forever.

What happens next, though, is the real question. Northern Ireland’s constitution requires that the government be made up of parties from both sides of the historic divide. And with Sinn Fein refusing to co-operate with the DUP while Arlene is under investigation over the RHI scheme; and Foster refusing to stand aside as leader of her party at the call of Sinn Fein, the stalemate looks unlikely to break.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein are also attempting to collapse the government in the Republic of Ireland over a scandal around the alleged smearing of a police whistle-blower. Things are changing fast, and the next few months are looking to be interesting indeed.

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