Green fortunes in Northern Ireland

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While being no expert on Northern Irish affairs (few British or Irish people take an interest relative to its media coverage), I couldn’t fail to notice that the Green Party of Northern Ireland stood in the Assembly elections for the first time at the end of November.

The Assembly was set up as part of the Good Friday agreement of 1998, less than 12 months in to Blair’s reign as Prime Minister. The agreement, which was endorsed in a referendum, commenced work in July with a power sharing agreement between Northern Ireland’s parties. Ever since then, the peace process has been troubled by tension between the province’s sectarian political parties (ones receiving votes according to their religious background), which attract nearly all the votes. There have been numerous occasions when it has been suggested that the agreement would collapse and that there would be a return to the violent past, which no one wants but sometimes it seems that the unionists or the nationalists would prefer it as a price for their unwillingness to compromise on their opinions. The 108-member Assembly, did however, find itself with 8 non-sectarian members (6 from the liberal Alliance party and two members of the Women’s Coalition), which pointed to some that some voters were willing to support people whether they had Irish, British, Catholic, Protestant, black, blue or green blood in them. The pro-agreement parties also bagged 75% of the overall vote and the moderate sectarian parties (Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)) came out as the two largest.

As this goes to press (to Natalie!), the Assembly has been suspended. The Assembly is a price for peace and its suspension is a bargaining tool to push forward the peace process. Tony Blair, however, called for fresh elections last autumn and the Northern Ireland Greens stood for the very first time: finally an opportunity for a fresh approach you might think? The Greens, running on a small budget (there’s a surprise!) managed to put up candidates in 6 of the 18 constituencies where, in each, 6 candidates are elected to the Assembly. The Greens pinned their hopes on South Down and North Down where there had been defections to the Green party, a Green presence in local elections and the mathematics and the opinions of the local people were most generous to the party. Members of the Irish, Scottish and English & Welsh sister parties went to the province to help out with the Greens’ campaign: this was support that the other parties simply didn’t have given their presence only in Northern Ireland. One of the most amusing comments I read from the website was that one voter said that while she agreed with the party’s opinions, she wanted the colour changed because it represented the Republic of Ireland! I despair!

Following the elections, there was some disappointment (at least in my mind) that the Greens did not manage to get a seat since I believe that once the Greens make a breakthrough, they generally confirm their presence there for good (e.g. Scottish Greens one seat on Scottish Parliament in 1999; seven seats in 2003 and a doubled vote) and Green politicians generally punch well above the size of their group suggests they can. Arguably even worse news was the emergence of the most radical parties as the two largest parties (anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein (“We Ourselves” in Gaelic)). The DUP’s leader, Reverend Ian Paisley, sits in the UK Parliament as well as in the European Parliament, where he is recorded to have called the Pope “the antichrist”, hence why diplomacy stands little chance with such a bigot! Sinn Fein on the other hand is believed to be (or were) linked to the IRA terrorist group. The wind was clearly against the smaller and non -sectarian parties this time (and only 6 non-sectarian members now) and so made it difficult for the Greens. Nevertheless, 2003 should be remembered as the time that the Green Party first played at the top table of Northern Irish politics.

And for the future? Does peace in Northern Ireland have a future? Well, as an optimist, I hope so and I think so. Why has it taken so long for peace to come though? Perhaps that in a Europe that is becoming more peaceful and economically prosperous as the years go by, the most active and sectarian of people are realizing that there is more to be lost than gained from violence. At the end of the day, quality of life is not hugely different between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and as the prevalent conservative forces make us more consumerist and individualistic, we become more interested about ourselves than the wider communities and countries to which we belong or don’t belong. Perhaps this has led to loss of patriotism and does loss of that deserve some credit for helping to create a climate of more tolerance?

And the Greens in Northern Ireland? Do they have a future? I think we can all predict that they do!Peace and security are the key milestones to reach before we can see an end to sectarian dominance and as they go to the graveyard, the Green Party is bound to be welcomed with open arms and the colour green seen for what it really is.

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