As Northern Ireland Seeks to Secure Peace, Splits within Unionist Ranks

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Northern Ireland politicians agreed to move policing and justice authority from Britain to the Stormont Assembly. It did so without the support of the once-dominant Ulster Unionist Party, pointing to lingering anger among some Protestants over concessions made to Irish republicans.

Spring is traditionally a time of regeneration - but in Northern Ireland, politics in the long-disputed territory is showing signs of remaining in the grip of a winter chill.

Just as local politics were starting to inch past the impasse between pro-Irish republicans and pro-British unionists, the two main unionist parties have found themselves at loggerheads - just in time for a British general election, which must be held before June 3.

Earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Assembly finally agreed to a deal on moving administration of policing and justice from the British parliament in Westminster to the devolved Stormont Assembly in Belfast - but it did so without the support of the once-mighty Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) that governed Northern Ireland from its foundation in 1920 until the original Stormont parliament was dissolved in 1973 amid rising violence.

The party's 18 local assembly members voted to reject the deal, complaining they had been "systematically ignored by [the] DUP and Sinn Fein as they jackboot through their agreement." Sinn Fein is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

Liam O'Dowd, a professor at the school of sociology and social policy at Belfast's Queen's University, says that policing is one of the most important issues remaining to be settled in Northern Ireland, and that pressure was brought to bear on unionists by the British government in order to save the assembly from collapse.

"I can't help thinking that the pressure to get the deal done on policing and justice is to do with the dissident republicans - to 'fireproof' Sinn Fein and consolidate their supporters' opposition to dissident republicans," he says.

Unionist rejection

The UUP objected to the deal, which has the support of Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) on the republican side, as well as the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party and minor parties such as Alliance and the Green Party.

The move has sown confusion among unionist supporters. The UUP has joined forces with Britain's Conservative Party to create an electoral bloc called Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. The parties said the move was a significant step away from Northern Ireland's traditional politics, where unionists are supported mostly by Protestant voters and republicans by Catholics, and offered Northern Irish voters a voice in British politics for the first time.

Britain's Labour and Liberal Democrat parties do not organize in Northern Ireland. Irish parties Fianna Fail and Labour have made some tentative steps northward, but only Sinn Fein and small socialist groups organize both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.

Objecting to handing policing authority over to local control has put the Ulster Unionists in the difficult position of opposing the policy of their larger Conservative partners. Many on the ground see this as an unwelcome return to sectarian form.

Conor Brady, a young professional in Belfast who says he is likely to vote for the SDLP, has concerns about the quality of local politicians, both in the Assembly and Westminster.

"I don't think that the NI Assembly is sufficiently sophisticated, politically astute, or has the requisite background or experience in judicial and governance matters to make a sufficiently decent fist of what is a complex and technical area," he says of the policing matter.

"In terms of whether the assembly represents me, you only have to look at the quality of debate in the Assembly to get a clear picture: the inarticulateness of members, their sheer inability to comprehend anything which may have the slightest degree of economic complexity . …