UK election exposes old battle lines in N. Ireland

A disused Customs control point at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Concerns that Brexit will lead to a hard border with Ireland have reinvigorated Irish nationalism and its dream of a united Ireland free of British in
A disused Customs control point at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Concerns that Brexit will lead to a hard border with Ireland have reinvigorated Irish nationalism and its dream of a united Ireland free of British influence.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Political leaders cast election as a choice between nationalist and unionist parties

BELFAST • Political leaders in Northern Ireland are casting next week's British election as a referendum on whether voters want to be part of the United Kingdom or the neighbouring Republic of Ireland.

Britain's vote to leave the European Union has raised the stakes in the long and divisive dispute over Northern Ireland's status. Concerns that Brexit will lead to a hard border with EU member Ireland have reinvigorated Irish nationalism and its dream of a united Ireland free of British influence.

That in turn has unsettled unionists, who back British rule and fear their majority is slipping away in the region of 1.8 million people.

For some people in both communities, the idea of a new, rigid frontier with Ireland stirs painful memories of the British Army watchtowers and checkpoints that peppered the border during decades of sectarian violence that killed thousands.

"The stakes could not be higher for unionism and for Northern Ireland," outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster said at the launch of her Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) election campaign last month.

"A general election ... is inevitably a referendum on Northern Ireland's place in the UK," she said, tapping into anxiety among mainly Protestant unionists about becoming a vulnerable minority in a predominantly Catholic united Ireland.

The election "will be seen in many ways as a barometer on Irish unity", said Mr Gerry Adams, president of the nationalist Sinn Fein party - the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army - last week.

IN OR OUT?

The stakes could not be higher for unionism and for Northern Ireland.

MS ARLENE FOSTER, outgoing First Minister.

Next Thursday's election will see British voters elect 650 lawmakers to the Parliament in London. The battle between Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives and Mr Jeremy Corbyn's opposition Labour might dominate proceedings nationally - but not in Northern Ireland. The Conservatives have no chance of winning a seat in the region and Labour does not contest elections there because of its historic alliance with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Instead the vast majority of Northern Irish voters will choose between nationalist and unionist parties, often represented by posters marked with Irish tricolours or British Union Jack flags.

Sinn Fein won four of Northern Ireland's 18 seats in Parliament in 2015 with 24.5 per cent of the vote and has a chance of winning a maximum of eight on a good day. The DUP won eight seats on 25.7 per cent of the vote and hopes to win up to 10.

Polls in the past have shown a strong majority in favour of remaining with Britain, but Brexit has upended many of the basic assumptions of Northern Ireland politics.

"While we can say the union is safe now, we can't rest on our laurels and say it will always be stable and safe," said Mr Doug Beattie, a candidate for the second largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionists, in the Upper Bann constituency.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2017, with the headline 'UK election exposes old battle lines in N. Ireland'. Print Edition | Subscribe