Is Baghdad Another Belfast? Canceled Elections in Northern Ireland Raise Questions about Democracy-Building in Iraq

By Merryman, Ashley | National Catholic Reporter, March 19, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Is Baghdad Another Belfast? Canceled Elections in Northern Ireland Raise Questions about Democracy-Building in Iraq


Merryman, Ashley, National Catholic Reporter


It's been several months since I returned from a summerlong stay in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but I'm still having a bad case of culture shock. It comes every time I hear any news about Iraq.

Because there's something different about watching news of the latest shooting of a soldier in an Iraqi terrorist attack after you've spent days hanging out with Irish Republican Army--IRA--or Ulster Volunteer Force--UVF--paramilitaries who have spent the last 30 years taking potshots at British soldiers. It's different to hear about armed patrols on the streets of Baghdad when it wasn't too long ago there was an armed soldier standing not too far from the restaurant where I was having dinner. It's different to read reports of a bombing in Iraq after a summer when I had to take the long way home because of seven bomb threats in a single day, when I couldn't reach anyone in an government building because of yet another bomb threat, when I interviewed police about what it was like to be stoned by people while they were on patrol, when I interviewed the people who throw the stones.

And most of all, what is really different was that I was living in a society that sees itself in the position of the Iraqis.

There are the occasional reports that keep coming out saying Americans are increasingly hated abroad, but the reports don't usually say why. I did, however, hear it in Belfast. With the intelligence's claims of weapons of mass destruction unproved at best, what remains for the justification for taking over Iraq is of course that we freed Iraqis from a tyrannical dictatorship with the promise of democracy. In Belfast, all summer long, every time President Bush or Prime Minister Blair made such a statement, people on both sides of the peace walls started to laugh. It mattered not if they were unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. The reaction was the same. They put their hands up in the air and cried, "Excuse me, Mr. Blair! When's our turn for democracy? How are you going to bring democracy to the Middle East when you have ended it in the U.K.?" Many months ago, Blair suspended the elected assembly of Northern Ireland, reestablishing the British Parliament's direct rule over the region. He canceled elections for a new assembly, without any indication of when or if elections would be held. Elected legislators were summarily stripped of their posts; they uncomfortably spent the remainder of their terms giving out business cards that stated that they were members of a legislature that no longer exists. Those who were the duly appointed ministers were reduced to mere lobbyists for the duration of their terms while absentee members of the British Parliament act as figureheads for the government ministries and civil servants that run the show.

Now, Blair's actions were not per se unreasonable. With unionist politicians at each other's throats over the continued viability of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement wrought between the unionists and nationalists, there's an ongoing concern that the Ulster Unionist Party will splinter, or at least that David Trimble, Nobel Peace Prize winner, will be ousted as party leader. Therefore, in a strategy commonly referred to as "Save David," elections were canceled and weren't rescheduled for months, until an agreement was reached with the IRA that it would decommission more arms (in hopes of resuscitating Trimble's flagging support).

But the election and the IRA's actions were too late. And what was feared has come to pass. Extremists on both sides of the peace walls were elected, including those who have vowed to end the Good Friday Agreement and those who have declared that it's the Good Friday Agreement or nothing (meaning, a return to war). So the answer by the British government is that elections may be meaningless: Since the parties won't be able to form a government, they may simply wait and hold another election, hoping for a better result next time.

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