Electing to disagree

What happened when the people of Northern Ireland forgot their place in the peace process.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The people of Northern Ireland have spoken – and the elites in London, Dublin and Washington are not happy.

On 26 November 2003, elections were held for a devolved Assembly that is still officially suspended. As many predicted, Sinn Fein eclipsed the Social Democratic and Labour Party to become Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party, winning 24 per cent of first-preference votes in comparison to the SDLP’s 17 per cent. As was less widely predicted, the Democratic Unionist Party – headed by Ian Paisley, the politician everyone loves to hate – stormed ahead of David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party, and officially became Northern Ireland’s biggest party with 26 per cent of first-preference votes (1).

This means that the DUP (Orange, pro-British and opposed to the Good Friday Agreement) may have to share power with Sinn Fein (Green, Catholic and linked to the IRA). And Paisley – the firebrand Presbyterian minister who once called Pope John Paul ‘the antichrist’ and branded line dancing ‘sinful’ because it ‘caters to the lust of the flesh’ – ought to become Northern Ireland’s First Minister. It didn’t take long for politicians and commentators to condemn the fickle voters. ‘Northern Ireland votes for deadlock’ said one headline. The British and Irish governments apparently considered ‘re-running’ the election to see if they could get a ‘better result’ (2).

The DUP is the only mainstream party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, on which the Assembly itself is based. The voters have been given a good telling-off for allowing an anti-Agreement party to win the day, as if they were naughty schoolkids who played a cruel trick on the political establishment. ‘The people, of course, are sovereign’, wrote Peter Preston in the Guardian. But ‘the outcome they ordain is simple nonsense’, which has left ‘the poor old peace process punctured, deflated, one puff from the waste bin of dead hopes and failed initiatives.’ (3) Paul Bew of Queen’s University in Belfast accused voters of delivering a blow to the ‘much-needed culture of tolerance’ (4).

Some American commentators have suggested that further US intervention might put the people of Northern Ireland back in their place and the peace process back on track. The Boston Globe reminds readers that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘one of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy triumphs’ (how dare the people of Northern Ireland vote against Bill Clinton?), and calls on President Bush now to ‘take the high ground’. ‘He could begin by adding American clout to see the Agreement through’, says the Globe. ‘He could allocate some fraction of the “prevention of terrorism” budget to Northern Ireland’s peace process.’ (5) Perhaps he could also organise a pre-emptive strike to get rid of the First Minister-in-waiting, who doesn’t do well with minorities and might even ban line dancing.

Since the Assembly results were announced, many have expressed a barely concealed contempt for Northern Ireland’s voters. Where peace-minded politicians like Clinton and Blair apparently worked hard to forge agreement, all the people can vote for are ‘hardcore fanatics’ (6). Where Northern Ireland apparently needs a ‘culture of tolerance’, the voters have been accused of opting for a return to the past. These outbursts against the electorate highlight the anti-democratic nature of the peace process, where the people have one role and one role only – to endorse the Good Friday Agreement. Their apparent failure to do that this time around has earned them the wrath of many in Britain, Ireland and America.

The peace process is based on the notion that Northern Ireland’s nationalist and Unionist communities are too blinkered to resolve their political differences, and need a heavy dose of outside intervention to keep them on the straight and narrow. With the rarefied emphasis on forging a ‘culture of tolerance’ – on rising above old-fashioned political squabbles – the officials running the process tend to view the people suspiciously. The Northern Ireland Office worries that nationalist and Unionist leaders will ‘play up to the electorate’ in order to win votes; that if Northern Ireland’s politicians are allowed too much contact with the people, it might re-ignite their old political posturings and herald a return to yesterday’s battles (7).

Northern Ireland’s electorate have been reduced to little more than Yes Men and Yes Women – whose job is to rubber-stamp developments rather than debate or challenge them. The Good Friday Agreement was agreed behind the closed doors of Stormont, under pressure from Washington and London; it was then put to the people of Ireland in a referendum, in an atmosphere where, as one commentator described it, ‘those who voted “No” were virtually looked upon as terrorists’.

In the run-up to the last week’s Assembly elections, British and Irish officials worked behind the scenes to ensure that the mainstream parties agreed on the future course for Northern Ireland before the election took place. UUP leader David Trimble said in October, ‘there should be no election until the parties have reached agreement’. Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern said: ‘We want the elections to be held in a positive, pro-Agreement atmosphere.’ (8)

If everything was pre-agreed and pro-Agreement, what was the point of an election? To give a democratic gloss to decisions already taken in London and Dublin. And when a bolstered vote for the anti-Agreement DUP seemed to take the shine off this final ‘democratic’ touch, the people were severely reprimanded.

For all the talk of Northern Ireland voting for the ‘fanatics’ of Sinn Fein and the DUP, in fact the election results do not signal a ‘return to the past’. Sinn Fein is one of the most pro-Agreement parties, and even the DUP is now said to be ‘toning down’ its anti-Agreement stance. The rising vote for Paisley among some Unionist voters appears to have been an anti-political vote, a way of kicking against the peace process, rather than an expression of hardcore Unionist sentiment. Paisley may have had a bit of clout in the 1970s, when his aims – to keep Northern Ireland British – coincided with the British elite’s aims. But in subsequent decades, British governments have instituted new ways of running Northern Ireland that have sidelined their old Unionist allies.

Today Paisley is a shadow of his former self – physically and politically. As he has become politically isolated, he is left with little more than his anti-Catholic prejudice. His increased vote is unlikely to have been for his party’s policies (‘Ulster Says No….to line dancing’?), but rather an expression of dissatisfaction with the drift of events. In many ways, voting for Paisley today is a bit like voting for a man in a monkey suit in Hartlepool – or indeed, for Dr Kieran Deeny, the GP who ran for the Northern Ireland Assembly on a ticket of keeping his local hospital open. Dr Deeny came top of the poll in West Tyrone, beating the traditional nationalist and Unionist candidates. Many of these votes – whether for Dr Paisley or Dr Deeny – will have been anti-political in sentiment.

But they are unlikely to impact on the peace process. Decisions about that are made elsewhere, and will not be swung by awkward election results in Northern Ireland.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Protestant and Catholic hardliners triumph in Northern Ireland election, CJAD News, 28 November 2003

(2) Assembly election ‘may be re-run’, BBC News, 29 November 2003

(3) The buck stops at the ballot box, Peter Preston, Guardian, 1 December 2003

(4) Paisleyism cannot be appeased, Paul Bew, Guardian, 4 December 2003

(5) Rescuing Northern Irish peace, Boston Globe, 4 December 2003

(6) Northern Ireland goes to the extremes, The Australian, 29 November 2003

(7) See Northern Ireland’s war of words, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) Talks held as Ulster faces election deadline, ePolitix, 14 October 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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