North Ireland votes in local elections amid deepening crisis

AFP , Tuesday 16 May 2023

Voters in Northern Ireland head to the polls in local elections on Thursday, with the British province politically paralysed due to a boycott by the biggest pro-UK party.

Thursday s local elections in Northern Ireland have been dominated by unionists boycott of the devolved government in Belfast


The vote in 11 municipal councils comes 15 months after a walkout by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive in Belfast.

But with the DUP showing no sign of budging on their opposition to a new post-Brexit trading pact, the campaign has been described as "lacklustre", with the malaise spreading to voters.

"Is there any point anymore?" said Rachel Hamilton, a 32-year-old primary school teacher with a young family, when asked who she was going to vote for.

Hamilton, who lives in Lancaster Park, a smart, new housing estate south of Belfast, said she had given up on the DUP after voting for them in the past.

Despite being concerned about budget cuts she has seen first hand, she said she was unlikely to vote at all.

"It's just extremely disappointing when you're in a job where the budgets have been cut drastically," she told AFP.

"They're not doing anything about it."

'Stand firm'

The DUP's walkout in February last year was prompted by its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the agreement for new trading rules after the UK's European Union exit.

The protocol, which the unionists said threatened Northern Ireland's place in the wider UK, kept it under EU rules because of the need to keep its land border with EU member Ireland open.

Parts of the protocol have been renegotiated into the Windsor Framework to ease trading bottlenecks with the rest of the UK.

But the DUP is still unconvinced, with its boycott fuelling political uncertainty in Northern Ireland, where 30 years of violence over British rule only ended in 1998.

"We are pledged to continue to stand firm after this election until we have properly secured and protected our place within the United Kingdom," party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said last week.

An April LucidTalk poll indicated that 62 percent of unionists and 79 percent of DUP voters support the party's opposition to the framework.

Peter McLoughlin, a political expert at Queen's University Belfast, expects the DUP to "hold their ground" on Thursday as the issue had "absolutely dominated" campaigning.

"I'm not optimistic," he explained. "Normally they do a bit of preparing the ground. And I'm not hearing that."

Nationalist Sinn Fein, the largest pro-Ireland party in Northern Ireland, has also framed the debate around the DUP's walkout as it looks to replace the unionist party as the dominant force in local government.

"This council election is more important than ever as one party continues to block an executive," said Michelle O'Neill, the party's leader.

'Bloody nose'

Antoinette Cole, 71, also living in Lancaster Park, said she planned to vote for Sinn Fein, whose fortunes have been transformed since they were the political wing of the IRA paramilitary.

In the past Cole, a former nurse, consistently voted for the more moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

But she said she now wanted to give the DUP a "bloody nose".

"The DUP have got away with too much. And every time there's something (offered) it's not good enough," she said.

"There has to be a line. It just goes on and on."

The cross-community area is a political battle ground for the non-aligned Alliance Party, which hopes to flip the local, DUP-dominated Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council for the first time.

Campaigning in the area, Alliance leader Naomi Long said her party was seeking to reform Northern Ireland's political institutions to end what she characterised as "ransom politics" in Northern Ireland.

She questioned whether the DUP's position could have any bearing on future discussions between the UK and the EU.

"The government have moved on even though the DUP have rejected the Windsor Framework," Long told AFP.

"The UK government is looking to the wider economy of the UK, not simply the disgruntlement of a certain section of the population here in Northern Ireland."

McLoughlin said it was difficult for the DUP to "turn the ship around" at this point.

"They've fed that angst and paranoia for so long now that I don't know how easy it will be to come out of."

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