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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Politics of paradox... and vice versa

Last evening I attended the launch of "Slugger Live," a discussion of Northern Ireland electoral politics hosted at Queen's University Institute of Governance by Mick Fealty, founder and chief blogger at Slugger O'Toole. (Some pics of event by Ciarán here.) Only a couple of years old, Slugger O'Toole is the preeminent blog for online "craic" about Northern Ireland politics. The launch involved a panel discussion among four newspaper journalists who cover the political beat in this geographic corner of Ireland, which is also a political corner of the UK.

I suspect I need to insert a few words of explanation to those who are not familiar with the political geography of Northern Ireland. It is one of the paradoxes of political geography that where you are geographically situated is not necessarily where you are located politically -- and this is especially true in Northern Ireland. Physically, of course, we are situated in the six counties located on the northeast coast of the Isle of Ireland. But politically we are located on the northwest edge of the UK. With the United Kingdom engaged in its haphazardly (but strategically) scheduled parliamentary elections, the electoral politics of Northern Ireland are in active mode. In addition to elections for Northern Ireland's seats in Westminster, this is also the time for the selection of local councils.

So, you might ask (if you are unfamiliar with the political realities of this little corner of the world), whose got the edge in Northern Ireland politics: New Labour? The Tories? How about the Liberal Dems? Well, while we may be located in the political world of UK politics, there is a second paradox to consider: where you are located politically has little to do with where you stand nationally. Northern Ireland politics constitutes a distinct arena within the UK where the labels assigned to the four major political parties sum up the situation in a nutshell: two of the parties are "unionist" and two are "nationalist" (well, actually "republican" -- but that's another paradox).

And while you might think that the election is being contested between the two sides of the "which nation?" issue, the politics of Northern Ireland in 2005 is actually dominated by still another paradox: where you stand nationally has little to do with who you oppose electorally. All the news about the election of Northern Ireland focuses on hardfought local contests between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionists Party (UUP) or between republican Sinn Féin and the nationalist SDLP. As the discussion at the event last night demonstrated, individual electoral contests this time around are dominated by questions of whether the dominant party on each side (that is, the DUP and Sinn Féin) will finally do in their natural allies who seem to be on decline.

The commentators on last evening's panel agreed that while no party will likely suffer a fatal blow in this election, the trends that favor the DUP and Sinn Féin are likely to continue. On the unionist side, the DUP has emerged as an electoral machine that is showing signs of being more than the Ian ("Never, Never") Paisley party, while the UUP continues to suffer from the poor leadership of David Trimble. On the nationalist side, Sinn Féin keeps rolling on despite its association with the IRA, bank robberies, at the gangster mentality associated with local killings. (The commentators agreed that the real opposition to Sinn Féin is not the SDLP, but rather Bertie Ahern and the other parties in the Republic of Ireland. In that sense, still another paradox of Northern Ireland politics emerges: the location of the election has little to do with the location of the politics.)

The bottom line is that the Westminster election will have little significance on policy, for the political reality is that none of the opposition parties to New Labour (in that other election that will take place on May 5) will do anything significantly different than the Blair government when it comes to Northern Ireland. Within Northern Ireland, the election will amount to little more than a measure of ongoing trends in Ulster politics. And one of the benefits of having a blog like Slugger around is that you can actually attempt to grasp what's going on in this paradoxical political world....
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