Friday, April 22, 2005

Trimble: We take Westminster seriously

Trimble: We take Westminster seriously

"Attacking Sinn Fein as 'incapable', the SDLP as 'marginal' and the DUP as 'caught up with grandstanding' Mr Trimble said it was only the UUP which would represent Northern Ireland."

Despite Trimble's best efforts, "all politics is local" is especially true in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland party structure has nothing to do with the rest of the UK and everything to do with The Troubles. What does Tomy Blair's stand on the war in Iraq matter when you have your own war down the street? There are five parties:

  • The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is the moderate Protestant party, historically allied with the Tories
  • Ian Paisley's Ulster Democratic Unionist Party (UDUP or DUP) is the hardline Protestant party.
  • The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is the moderate Catholic party and traditionally aligns with Labour.
  • Sinn Fein is the hardline Catholic party historically linked to the IRA.
  • Alliance is the interfaith party that draws little support in Westminster elections. A Catholic voter isolated in a Protestant constituency with no SDLP or Sinn Fein candidates might vote Alliance.

    Trimble's comment that the UUP would "represent" Northern Ireland is interesting when you consider that Sinn Fein members do not take their seats in the UK Parliament. You see, when you are sworn in you pledge allegiance to the Queen, which an Irish Republican would not do. (SDLP does participate.) So in voting Sinn Fein you are electing a representative who will represent you in Parliament by NOT representing you. Sort of like naming a UN ambassador who doesn't believe in the UN - only in the Irish context it actually makes sense.

    Gerrymandering seems not to be a big feature of UK elections but in Northern Ireland the seats are carefully drawn. Most are heavily Unionist or Republican, so a typical election is DUP vs. UUP or SDLP vs. Sinn Fein. The biggest exception is the hard-fought Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the seat once won by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Sinn Fein took the seat from UUP in 2001 by 53 votes.

    Seats are carefully named, too:

    The Foyle seat has at its heart Northern Ireland's second largest city. Its official title of Londonderry is used mainly by Protestants, but Catholics - who make up the majority of its population - refer to it as Derry. As a result, in order to avoid offence to either community, the Boundary Commission named the seat after the River Foyle, which flows through the city.

    North Belfast is the other seat that could, depending on the split within communities, go either way; "When all four parties stood in 1997, the DUP won with only 27% of the vote, but in 2001 they won much more easily with 41%." This was with Sinn Fein at 25 and SDLP at 21. All four main parties are running this time.

    In 2001 and in recent regional elections, UUP and SDLP have lost ground to DUP and Sinn Fein.

    The 18 NI seats are unlikely to have an impact on the overall Westminster picture. In the last months of his tenure, John Major had to rely on Unionist votes after losing his majority, but it's difficult to envision Blair hanging on with Republican votes - or needing to.

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