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Developments in Northern Ireland, the wider UK and Ireland

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 16:00

By Dr John Coulter, political columnist with the Irish Daily Star and Tribune magazine


Northern Ireland has just endured a summer of hate as the peace process deteriorated into its most volatile state since the 1994 terrorist ceasefires.

The media recorded the worst riots since the 1981 republican hunger strikes and the 1996 Orange Order parade standoff at Drumcree.

The diabolical situation has left many wondering how the peace process crumbled given the highly successful G8 conference in Fermanagh, which included a public relations coup with President Obama; Londonderry celebrating the UK City of Culture year, and Ulster hosting the prestigious World Fire and Police Games.

The peace process unravelling gives the perception the island is returning to the bitter sectarian conflict which has gripped Ireland for the past eight centuries. At first sight, the reasons for the unrest seem politically stupid.

Firstly, there is the decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag on designated days rather than all year round. The Council was once the bastion of Unionism, but now has a republican and centre Alliance Party ruling coalition.

The Parades Commission, which rules on the routes of many of Northern Ireland’s contentious marches, is being blamed for its decision to refuse loyalists from marching along the Catholic ‘Ardoyne Shops’ in north Belfast, and republicans holding their Tyrone Volunteers parade near Castlederg town where the IRA murdered numerous people.

There is also the equally controversial future of the former Maze prison, which once held some of Europe’s most dangerous terrorists. It was the location where 10 IRA and INLA hunger strikers died in 1981.

Republicans want one of the so-called H Blocks retained; Unionists say the so-called peace centre will become a terrorist shrine. This summer’s rioting has again witnessed numerous police officers injured, and thousands of pounds of lost business.

Millions of pounds in European Union funding is also at stake for the peace centre, when DUP First Minister Peter Robinson, dramatically withdrew his support for the peace centre project, sparking speculation that he bowed to pressure from Right-wingers in his party and placing his leadership in serious jeopardy.

Supporters of the peace centre must be wondering how they will guarantee the EU funding before any referendum on the UK’s EU membership, especially if the British electorate votes to leave the EU.

Robinson is now facing the same crisis which forced his predecessor Ian Paisley senior – now Lord Bannside – out of both the DUP leadership and First Minister’s post. Again, at first sight, the solution is simple – replace Robinson with a more traditional Right-wing Unionist.

But the current peace process held because Sinn Fein and the DUP have been able to maintain the power-sharing Executive at Stormont since 2007. It has been one of the longest periods of devolved government in Northern Ireland since the original Stormont Parliament was axed in 1972.

The Union flag row, parade disputes and Maze shrine argument have all combined to lift the lid on the underlying cause of the unrest which, if not addressed, will unhinge the peace process – the growing political disengagement in the loyalist working class.

The 1994 ceasefires and especially the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which shifted the peace process into top gear saw the emergence of dissident terrorist movements in both republicanism and loyalism.

Over the last almost two decades, republicanism has witnessed the development of terror groups opposed to the peace process, such as the Continuity IRA, Real IRA, New IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann. Although these organisations have been heavily infiltrated by the security forces on both sides of the Irish border, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has constantly warned about the threat posed by republican dissidents.

This summer’s rioting from Protestants has now seen the development of a dissident loyalist terror movement, not witnessed since 1999. The 1994 loyalist paramilitary ceasefires were called by the umbrella organisation, the Combined Loyalist Military Command, which represented mainstream terror groups – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association.

In 1999, dissident loyalists formed the rival Protestant Military Alliance, which represented the Orange Volunteers, Red Hand Defenders and Real Ulster Freedom Fighters. As with the dissident republicans, the British security forces used their network of agents and informers to penetrate and neutralise the dissident loyalists.

Loyalist street violence this summer has seen more than 50 police officers injured. The Police Federation, which represents ranks and file police officers, has called for more officers to be recruited to cope with the troubles. The PSNI leadership has had to rely on police officers from mainland Britain being sent to Northern Ireland.

The real core of the crisis is that the loyalist working class feels abandoned by the mainstream Unionist parties, perceiving that the peace process has substantially benefited the Catholic communities.

There is particular anger directed towards Robinson’s DUP. Although it was founded in 1971 as a predominantly Protestant working class movement, to overtake the rival Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP has had to eat into the electorally lucrative Unionist middle class.

However, in becoming the dominant party in Unionism, the perception has now been created among loyalists that the DUP has abandoned them in favour of power at Stormont, and power with the most extreme form of republicanism at that.

Many loyalists remember that the DUP fought its 1985 local government election campaign under Paisley senior on a ‘Smash Sinn Fein’ platform. Loyalism has interpreted Sinn Fein’s ability to secure peace funding for nationalists areas as an attack on British heritage and culture.

In this respect, the DUP has fallen into a political pitfall which Sinn Fein has tactically avoided. Like the DUP, Sinn Fein’s main power base from 1981 onwards was the Catholic working class. To become the dominant force in Northern republicanism, Sinn Fein had to capture the nationalist middle class; the traditional ground occupied by the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party. This electoral victory by Sinn Fein over the SDLP was achieved in the 2003 Assembly poll and has been held ever since.

However, Sinn Fein has been able to target electorally lucrative Catholic middle class voting areas while retaining its support base in working class republican strongholds. It is a fine cross-class balancing act which Robinson’s DUP has been unable to copy.

Such has been the alienation between the DUP and the loyalist working class, Robinson has even been forced to seek support from a significant minority of pro-Union Catholics, commonly called ‘Castle Catholics’.

This has propelled the DUP into voter territory which it was traditionally unaccustomed to – the centre pro-Union fraternity. The DUP found itself in a tough election battle with moderate UUP, Alliance, the Northern Ireland Tories, and the new moderate pluralist party spawned from the UUP, known as NI21.

Policy-wise, the 2013 Robinson-led DUP found itself on the same political ground as the 2003 UUP then led by First Minister David Trimble, now Lord Trimble of the Conservative Party.

Working class loyalists have begun to organise electorally against the DUP, going in urban areas mainly to the socialist-leaning Progressive Unionist Party, viewed by some as the political wing of the terrorist UVF and Red Hand Commando. The Union flag protest campaign has also led to the creation of the hardline Protestant Coalition party.

The 2014 European elections have also thrown another wild card into the political mix for the three Northern Ireland seats – UKIP. In mainland Britain, especially in England, the Nigel Farage-led Eurosceptic movement has been gaining ground substantially and may even emerge as the United Kingdom’s largest party in the European Parliament ahead of the Tories and Labour.

Over the summer, Farage pulled off a public relations coup when he visited Northern Ireland to promote UKIP and went ‘walk about’ in the loyalist working class stronghold of East Belfast – Robinson’s Assembly constituency.

Farage made it very clear in his speeches that while Sinn Fein and the UUP seemed likely to retain their MEPs, the DUP’s European seat was vulnerable given the working class backlash against the DUP.

To avoid the electoral fate of the UUP and Trimble, the DUP may be forced to lurch politically to the radical Right and offer Robinson as a sacrificial lamb. But the present stability of the Stormont Executive is finely balanced on Sinn Fein and the DUP being able to work together in the middle ground.

It was this effectively working scenario which earned Paisley senior and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness the nickname of The Chuckle Brothers – after the popular children’s TV programme – but which was to lead to Paisley senior’s eventual demise.

The question, therefore, given that the DUP has a reputation for putting party survival before keeping politicians, is when, not if, Robinson will quit. His departure will see a three-horse leadership race with the winner having to make some substantial Right-leaning policy shifts to placate grassroots Unionists before the 2014 European poll.

The choices are Executive Minister Arlene Foster, a former UUP member from the rural Fermanagh border constituency. She is a Robinson supporter who could maintain the DUP’s slender relationship at Stormont with Sinn Fein.

There is former Executive Minister Sammy Wilson, the East Antrim MP and ex-Belfast Lord Mayor who has strong working class credentials, and would be a popular choice to rebuild the DUP’s links with loyalism.

The outsider would be East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell, viewed as being on the party’s Christian fundamentalist wing. When Paisley senior was leader, he was also Moderator of his fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster which he founded 20 years before the DUP in 1951. Since his departure from the leadership, the fundamentalists have largely been a minority voice within the party.

Another wild card in the survival of the Stormont Executive and ultimately the peace process will be the outcome of the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. If Scotland voted to leave the Union, could it mean more Westminster cash for Northern Ireland?

If Scotland narrowly voted to remain within the Union, would it trigger the maximum devolution scenario – the so-called ‘Devo Max’ solution – whereby the Scottish Parliament was given even more devolutionary powers? This would effectively mean total Home Rule for Scotland, the next best step to full independence.

A consequence of this would be to kick-start a ‘Devo Max’ project for the Stormont Assembly. Again, this would be akin to granting Home Rule to Northern Ireland. Ironically, many Unionists are staging centenary commemorations of Unionism’s fight against Irish Home Rule plans when Ireland was one nation under the Union and which brought the island to the brink of civil war. That sectarian slaughter was only averted with the outbreak of the Great War in Europe in August 1914.

Likewise, a strong UKIP showing throughout the UK in 2014 will have a clear impact on the Republic of Ireland, the only other EU state to have a land border with the UK in Northern Ireland.

The Republic, like Greece, has had to be given a massive multi-million euro bailout to help the country survive the effects of the disastrous collapse of the once-thriving Celtic Tiger economy. Already there are rumours of some shops on the Southern side of the border abandoning the euro and trading in sterling.

If the North leaves the EU as part of a general UK departure following any future referendum, the South will have no other option financially but to follow the UK. The South’s only other option would be to re-negotiate its re-entry back into the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, formed originally as the Empire Parliamentary Association in 1911. Ireland was a founder EPA member when Ireland was entirely under British rule.

The seeds of a new political map for the British Isles could now be sown. This could see Scotland out of the UK, but still in the EU, with England, Wales, and Ireland (North and South) out of the EU, but in a new Union of the British Isles.

The key to this scenario becoming a reality is the future survival of the Stormont Assembly. If the Executive collapses amid street violence and paramilitary terror, could it reinvigorate violent nationalism in Scotland and Wales?