Ulster after Ian Paisley: between conflict’s legacy and economic crisis

Tuesday Charles Flanagan, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland, welcomed the new American ambassador Kevin O 'Malley and expressed the hope that the American involvement in the solution of current stalemate in Northern Ireland politics continues.

A woman cycles past a mural with the Red hand of Ulster and a Scottish Thistle on the Lower Newtownards Road in East Belfast July 5, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughtonThe economic crisis it’s the most obvious threat that jeopardizes the peace process, the solution of social problems is a necessary step to be taken in order to overcome the conflict, therefore many agree with Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness (Ulster Deputy first Minister), that last week said: "British government welfare cuts and austerity measures are creating huge difficulty for our administration.”

Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, speaking Sunday on the opening of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, stressed the importance of dialogue between political parties that in Belfast have been fighting for decades and that now share Northern Ireland’s government. But Stormont (Ulster autonomous assembly) is now stumbling on a stone sent from London: two hundred and twenty million pounds to be cut in the budget of various social sectors, a risky assignment in the peacemaking context.

Barriers that political forces shaped from the battles on Belfast streets are facing in their grassroot groups should not be underestimated: this is true for Protestant loyalists who see in power sharing involving the Republic of Ireland a sellout of their community to the reunification with South and is true as well for Irish nationalists who consider cuts to welfare in Northern Ireland another blow from British capitalism. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, pointed out that in requiring a budget contraction British representatives do not consider that the community in Ulster "is coming out of a conflict and the underprivileged workers suffered the most."

Even among Democratic Unionist Party (Pro-British Protestants) disagreements are creeping: recently the First Minister Peter Robinson had to deny rumors of his impending withdrawal. Also “Sinn Féin” (the Irish nationalist and Republican party) is in the cabinet, in the difficult balance obtained in 1998 by the Republic of Ireland and by the United Kingdom to bridge divisions. The disappearance of historical leaders who have ferried reluctant groups through the peace process puts at risk its outcome, although these leaders had remained into the early stages of the agreements the most ardent detente opponents.

An example of the rough path faced by the protagonists of clashes and truces that marked the agreements it is Ian Paisley’s political journey: died last September 12th  at the age of eighty-eight, in 1998 he staunchly opposed the Good Friday Agreement, which included the current institutional setting of cohabitation government and in 2003 his Democratic Unionist Party surpassed what had been the biggest flag-waver of pro-British loyalty, the Ulster Unionist Party, by then perceived by many Protestants as too compliant towards the Republicans, but after that the Irish Republican Army had carried out 2005 disarmament, Paisley led the DUP in government together with its historic opponents, “Sinn Fein”, protestant “Ulster Unionist Party” and the Catholic “Social Democratic and Labour Party”.

The result realized in 2007 with a cohabitation government seems incredible if you look at Ulster’s past, when Paisley often incited to sectarian violence and discrimination against Irish Republicans. In 1971, the Protestant minister brought pro-British loyalist hardliners out of Uup, forming the DUP, well organized in the streets but, for three decades, a minority force if compared to Ulster Unionist Party, later weakened by the 1998 agreement and by other hardliners depart. Ian Paisley often fueled anti-Catholic attitudes in some sections of the pro-British population and as minister of the "Free Presbyterian Church" founded by him in 1951, he violently attacked the Catholic Church.

At the end of his journey, in 2007, the radical pastor accepted that a step towards a distension was necessary, becoming representative of the majority party in Ulster in a government of cohabitation, but once used his authority in the community where he belonged to bring it to the table with former enemies, in 2008 he left the role of First Minister to his deputy, Peter Robinson: Paisley was maybe aware that his entire experience was hardly compatible with the now necessary cooperation, today that the economic crisis has made it even more difficult.

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