Local Rivalries Dominate Campaign in N. Ireland

Special to The Times

It is election season in Northern Ireland, but all is quiet along Sandy Row, a British loyalist bastion where the weeds grow high, the buildings decay and the shops are all shuttered hours before dark.

“I don’t know why we’ve lagged behind the [Irish] Republic so much,” John McGuiness said, standing in front of an Ulster Volunteer Force mural in this city where unemployment reaches 90% in some pockets.

The government worker grumbled that the economy, not the struggle between unionists who want to remain part of Britain and the nationalists who seek a fully independent Ireland, should be dominating the campaign for the parliamentary elections Thursday.

“I’d like to see more trade with [Ireland], and more tourism here, but you don’t hear too much about that,” McGuiness said. “It’s all overshadowed by this tribal stuff.”

On the staunchly republican Falls Road, two women taking a brisk evening walk said the debate’s narrow focus had left them cold too.


“You watch TV for 10 minutes and you want to shut it off, because these politicians can discuss nothing else,” said a 32-year-old lawyer who, as is often the case when discussing politics here, would not give her name.

Above her head, campaign posters for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, pictured leader Gerry Adams with a slogan in Gaelic: Saoirse, Ceart agus Siochain -- Freedom, Justice and Peace.

“If you ask anyone down this road what Sinn Fein’s stance is on jobs or education or health benefits, no one will know, but they’ll vote for them anyway,” said Trish, 32, a community relations worker who would not give her last name.

The killing of a Belfast Catholic man, allegedly by IRA members; a $50-million bank heist blamed on the IRA; and the stalled negotiations to revive Northern Ireland’s provincial government have all made this year’s campaign rhetoric especially heated. The leading Protestant group, the conservative Democratic Unionist Party, promotes itself on its website as “the only party that can beat Sinn Fein.”

At stake is the survival of the moderate groups, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labor Party.

Not one of their seats is safe, analysts say. Voters angry over the collapse of the Good Friday agreement, the landmark 1998 accord that established a power-sharing arrangement for Northern Ireland, continue to drift to their hard-line rivals. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, could lose his seat, as could SDLP leader Mark Durkan.

In the current parliament, the Democratic Unionists have six seats, the Ulster Unionists five, Sinn Fein four and the SDLP three.

Polls indicate that Sinn Fein, which refuses to take its seats in parliament in protest of British rule, has maintained its support despite the bank raid and Robert McCartney’s killing in January.

Republican commentator Danny Morrison, a former Sinn Fein spokesman, said that although some candidates have tried to address issues such as poverty and lack of jobs, the media have kept the focus on the McCartney slaying.

“The elite media [are] obsessed with McCartney,” he said.

On a political show on BBC Radio Ulster last week, a caller accused Democratic Unionists of playing to anti-Catholic prejudices. Gregory Campbell, a Londonderry member of parliament for the party, responded that its views were caricatured as hateful, when it was merely “projecting the deeply held views of our own community.”

A new study shows that two-thirds of Northern Ireland’s economy relies on public spending. That’s more than any European country except Sweden and Denmark, according to the Center for Economics and Business Research in London. Such a level of dependence is “like a drug -- once you’re on it, it’s hard to get off,” said the study’s author, Doug McWilliams.

The Alliance Party, which has tried for decades to speak across sectarian lines about economic and social issues, has seen its support dwindle. University of Ulster politics professor Paul Dixon said that although voters were anxious about Northern Ireland’s lack of prosperity, what they cared most about was that their side gain power.

“You get people who say they’re sick of all this, and why not talk about education and poverty?” he said.

“But those parties who attempt to are often not rewarded, so you have voters saying one thing and voting for another. The partition question overrides all these issues.”