people of Northern Ireland have spoken - and the elites
in London, Dublin and Washington are not happy.
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
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).
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).
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.
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.
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
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'.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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
and Catholic hardliners triumph in Northern Ireland
election, CJAD News, 28 November 2003
election 'may be re-run', BBC News, 29 November
buck stops at the ballot box, Peter Preston,
Guardian, 1 December 2003
cannot be appeased, Paul Bew, Guardian, 4 December
Northern Irish peace, Boston Globe, 4 December
Ireland goes to the extremes, The Australian,
29 November 2003
Ireland's war of words, by Brendan O'Neill
held as Ulster faces election deadline, ePolitix,
14 October 2003
article first appeared in Spiked
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