By Javier Aja
Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 3 (EFE).- Brexit, 25 years of peace and constant political instability have transformed Northern Irish society, according to Stephen Farry, the deputy leader of Alliance, a non-sectarian party campaigning as an alternative to the entrenched unionist-nationalist divide as voters head to the polls for local elections this week.
Founded in 1970 during the early years of the Northern Irish conflict known as the Troubles, Alliance gives voice to a moderate, pro-European stance in a country whose polarized politics and communities are still defined by religious and cultural identities.
“Northern Ireland is a changing society. People are moving away from the traditional labels and the viewpoints of unionism and nationalism. We are a cross-community party that draws our support from right across the community and from people with liberal progressive outlooks,” Farry told Efe in an interview.
Alliance could emerge as Northern Ireland’s third power in the country’s devolved assembly on May 5 with a predicted 16% of the votes, a hair behind the Democratic Unionist Party, which is set for roughly 19%.
The left-wing nationalist party Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the now inactive Irish Republican Army paramilitary group, is set to win the election for the first time in Northern Ireland’s 100-year-history with a predicted 26% of the vote.
Alliance is currently the fifth largest party in the power-sharing devolved executive, comprising two nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, which advocate for Irish reunification and bank on a traditionally Catholic vote, and two unionist parties, the DUP and the UUP, which are in favor of Northern Ireland’s continued union with the United Kingdom and are powered largely by Protestant voters.
A YOUTHFUL SHIRKING OF LABELS
“Certainly Northern Ireland is still a divided society in many respects,” Farry said. “But we have seen over the past 25 years, since the time of the Good Friday Agreement, more and more people moving away from traditional labels and not seeing themselves as being exclusively unionist or exclusively nationalist, having open, multiple, mixed identities and that’s very good for society,” Farry said.
Recent political studies have found an emerging political trend in Northern Ireland known as secular unionism, a cross-community movement in favor of UK membership but opposed to Brexit.
Polls have also detected a growing number of people, especially in those who came of age after the 1998 peace agreement, who identify as neither Irish nationalist nor British unionist but simply Northern Irish.
“It’s pretty strong amongst young people who are shaking off the divisions that characterize their parents’ or their grandparents’ generations in those eras. Also, we’re seeing a much stronger focus in terms of issues around the future of education, the health service,” Farry, who is also a member of the UK parliament, added.
THE BORDER DEBATE CAN WAIT
Brexit, which was rejected by Northern Irish voters in 2016, has revived the debate on Irish reunification but Farry believes that voters want answers on the economy, health care and the rising cost of living.
As a cross-community party, Alliance remains neutral on the topic of a possible referendum on Irish reunification, known as a border poll.
“Obviously, the debate is out there and no doubt it will intensify. But I don’t think that the conditions have been met yet for calling a border poll or where a border poll would actually be successful,” Farry said.
“We are a cross-community party. We don’t take a stance on the border, it’s a very deliberate choice we’ve made because we want to appeal across the community. But we are happy to take part in those debates and give that liberal progressive perspective as to how people are shaping their own ideas in that regard.”
The Brexit and Irish border issues will, nonetheless, dominate the agenda of the next executive in Northern Ireland.
The DUP, which is opposed to the implementation of custom checks on goods traveling across the Irish Sea, a Brexit measure agreed by the UK and the European Union, has signaled it may not re-enter the power-sharing executive at Stormont unless the Brexit issues are resolved to the party’s satisfaction.
The Irish sea border has sown discontent among Northern Ireland’s unionist communities, who view it as a mechanism that distances them from the UK. EFE