Recent parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland have created a political instability not seen in many years. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when the controversial prospect of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union is a distinct possibility.
The British have scheduled a vote on breaking their ties to the EU for June 23 in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. While no one knows the impact of such a move, virtually everyone believes there will be many new problems to solve following a breakaway decision.
In the Republic, voters elected a parliament without a clear winner, requiring the formation of a tenuous agreement between two political parties that have been at odds for nearly a century going back to the 1916 Easter Rebellion. Fine Gael only won 50 seats out of 157 but will head the government, but only with the continuous approval of Fianna Fail and its 43 seats. The latter abstained from the vote to elect Fine Gael leader and former Taoiseach Enda Kenny as the republic’s new taoiseach.
The vote to install the new government was 59 to 49, with a number of independents joining with Fine Gael. Any serious argument between the two major parties will bring down the government and cause a new election to be held. Most experts feel this could happen anytime while predicting the current agreement will last less than two years. This is not a good situation. The challenges presented by the UK leaving the EU will be substantial, especially in dealing with Northern Ireland and the border between the two divided parts of Ireland.
In the North, the elections to the Stormont Assembly went fairly smoothly. The DUP, and its new leader, Arlene Foster, did very well in taking 38 seats. Foster can be considered the big winner in the North as she replaces Peter Robinson, the DUP’s outgoing leader who had taken over from Ian Paisley a few years ago. Her party retained the seats they had in the previous Assembly in an election that generally showed substantial strength for Unionist politics.
The number two Unionist Party, the UUP, maintained its 16 seats but it is still struggling to emerge from behind the DUP’s shadow.
The Nationalist vote in the North weakened somewhat. Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland’s second largest party, ended up with 28 seats, a loss of one seat, and SDLP, which lost two seats, now has 14, less than half of their Nationalist rivals.
A personal success story on the Nationalist side is hard-working Máirtín O’Muilleoir, a Sinn Fein leader who topped the vote in South Belfast and has been appointed Minister of Finance in the new government. O’Muilleoir has visited Boston several times and will be a key figure in the future fortunes of Sinn Fein.
The problem in the North is the dominance of the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein. Usually the lessor parties, the UUP, the SDLP, and Alliance join the government with minor representation, but that is not the case this time. The Alliance Party refused to take the controversial Minister of Justice portfolio and Colum Eastwood of the SDLP, and Mike Nesbitt of the UUP have led their parties into active opposition. This means they will not be part of the government in parliament and will oppose it when they feel it necessary to do so. This will give them both more publicity and identification, but it will hurt progress if they become a hindrance to solving problems. And there are sure to be difficulties if the British decide to leave the EU.
The move by conservatives in Britain to rid themselves of what they perceive as interference by Europeans received a boost when Prime Minister David Cameron offered to have a referendum on the question if he was re-elected. Brexit is the media term for the issue.
The two sides are known as “Leave” and “Remain” As with all elections, there are wild claims being written and spoken on both sides. Cameron is fighting hard to keep the United Kingdom in the EU and his friend, Barack Obama, has helped him with positive statements during the president’s recent visit.
The ability to respond to problems in the North if Britain leaves the EU is of critical importance and a sound decision-making Parliament will be necessary.