UK election: the North’s neglected crisis

There is no sign of the spirit of compromise so urgently needed between nationalism and unionism

Northern Ireland’s party leaders at Monday night’s debate:  Naomi Long (Alliance Party), Nigel Dodds (DUP), Robin Swann (Ulster Unionist Party), Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) and Colum Eastwood (SDLP).

Northern Ireland’s party leaders at Monday night’s debate: Naomi Long (Alliance Party), Nigel Dodds (DUP), Robin Swann (Ulster Unionist Party), Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin) and Colum Eastwood (SDLP).

 

A feature of the long general election campaign in the United Kingdom is that Northern Ireland has barely rated a mention despite the fact that the region is facing crisis on a number of fronts.

Although Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been put under pressure to explain his past association with Sinn Féin and the IRA, his views have not been sought about how to deal with the North’s current problems. That those problems threaten to undermine the Belfast Agreement, do severe damage to Northern Ireland’s economy and threaten the future of the UK does not appear to have impinged on the major parties in Britain.

The performance of the Northern Ireland parties in the campaign has not been inspiring either. There is no sign that the spirit of compromise between nationalism and unionism that is so urgently needed in the face of the multiple threats is anywhere on the horizon. The restoration of the power-sharing institutions set up by the Belfast Agreement depends on the willingness of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin to make a deal but there seems little prospect of that happening.

The two parties are focused on the Westminster election as the latest phase in their battle to establish which of them is top dog. In the recent Assembly elections, Sinn Féin shocked the DUP by coming within 1,100 votes of overtaking it for the first time.

Both parties have resumed that contest in the current campaign and are using every possible tactic to maximise their vote rather than coming up with policies designed to confront the real problems that will face them after election-day.

Sinn Féin has put a border poll centre stage in its campaign regardless of the fact that such a referendum would be both divisive and futile. Not to be outflanked, the SDLP has backed the idea but not with any great level of enthusiasm.

The DUP has seized on the border poll campaign as a way of mobilising support for the union in an effort to rally as many unionist voters as possible so as to put some blue water between itself and Sinn Féin. In its own bid to avoid being outflanked, the Ulster Unionist Party has denounced Sinn Féin for calling for special status for Northern Ireland within the EU as a means of avoiding the worst consequences of Brexit. Even though it was the only unionist party to favour remaining in the EU, the UUP has reverted to old-fashioned rhetoric in its battle for survival.

The upshot is that the very real immediate danger that Brexit poses to the people of Northern Ireland is not being adequately addressed by any of the parties there. This is political ineptitude of a high order, particularly as there is even a chance that the Northern parties could have some leverage in the next House of Commons if Prime Minister Theresa May’s early election strategy backfires and leaves her with a hung parliament.

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