Northern Ireland and the Brexit Wrecking Ball

Joseph Healy looks at the political crisis in Northern Ireland

A crisis has arisen in Northern Ireland with new elections scheduled for the Northern Irish Assembly soon. Trust has broken down between the two leading parties under the power sharing agreement – Sinn Fein and the DUP – with Sinn Fein’s Martin Mc Guiness pulling the plug on the power sharing arrangement and calling for new elections.

But is this just more of the same old, same old, politics in Northern Ireland with the Unionist community supporting the DUP and the Nationalist community overwhelmingly supporting Sinn Fein? This is the view of many political commentators who believe that the new election will just see a very similar political makeup in the new Assembly.

But there are two major differences this time. One is corruption and the other is Brexit. The grounds on which the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein broke down were ostensibly over the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal. This was a scheme negotiated by a DUP minister where businesses were paid a subsidy effectively to burn more fuel – the more you used the more you were compensated. Now while it is clear that the DUP is a party which dismisses climate change this scheme was even too much for some of them. One leading DUP Assembly Member broke cover and revealed that Arlene Foster, the First Minister and DUP leader had effectively set up the scheme. When Sinn Fein and all of the other parties in the Assembly called for an investigation and the temporary resignation of Foster this was dismissed out of hand. This was too much for Sinn Fein and they withdrew from the power sharing government.

But it is not just the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal which has led to the present crisis. The DUP, since Foster took command, has consistently snubbed Sinn Fein and the representatives of the nationalist community. An example was when a DUP minister withdrew funding for children from nationalist areas to attend Irish language courses in the ‘Gaeltacht’ (Irish language speaking areas in the Republic). When Sinn Fein threatened to leave the government the funds were mysteriously restored. This was just one example of the DUP’s deliberate sidelining and insulting of Sinn Fein and the nationalist community.

But the real wild card this time around is Brexit. Northern Ireland voted by a large majority, across political lines, to remain in the EU. The DUP were the exception, supporting Brexit and seeing English nationalism as the ally and buttress of Ulster Unionism. As Fintan O’Toole in a recent Irish Times article pointed out, they even went so far as to place ads in the Metro paper in London calling on Londoners to vote Brexit! For the DUP Brexit would signify a final dividing line between Northern Ireland and the Republic and the death of the dream of a reunified Ireland.

However, Northern Ireland is the part of the UK which would be most impacted economically by Brexit and the majority of people there know this, hence the vote. Its main trading area is the Republic and the prospect of a hard border would be economically devastating. Particularly in the border areas people shop and trade across the border virtually every day. The impact of the loss of EU subsidies to agriculture in Northern Ireland would also be devastating. Immigration is not an issue in Northern Ireland, except in the hardline Unionist areas which have links with far right groups in the UK such as Britain First and hate all foreigners, whether Catholic Poles or Muslim Pakistanis.

All of the other parties in Northern Ireland oppose Brexit, including the UUP, the other main Unionist party. A recent House of Lords committee on Europe reported that: “Northern Ireland must not be allowed to become collateral damage of Brexit” and “The huge impact on Anglo-Irish relations are often overlooked on the British side of the Irish Sea”. This is an understatement as the fate of Northern Ireland, whether economically or in terms of the peace process are ignored by the fervent Brexiteers in government.

There is a feeling that this election could be different. There is a lot of anger over the Ash for Cash scandal but also over other social issues such as the DUP’s refusal to grant gay marriage in Northern Ireland, the only part of these islands where it is banned.

But will moderate and younger Unionists now vote for something different and distance themselves from the Brexit regime in London and form a real power sharing administration with Sinn Fein and the nationalists? Economically being part of a united Ireland within the EU now makes more sense than ever and the alternative is for NI to become an even poorer and backward province of the UK than it is now. The new Assembly will also have less seats and this could have an impact electorally. Things change slowly in Northern Ireland but this may well be an election worth watching.

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