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Common Cents

Emerald Isle

Ralph Murphy

(1/2015) Autonomous rule of Northern Ireland has taken many turns since the region's 1922 withdrawal from the Irish Free State. The newly independent Ireland was a post World War 1 creation and a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. But strong religious and economic constituencies allowed the Northern area to be retained as a sovereign territory of the United Kingdom. It has been in rhetorical and deadly contention since Itís creation, but current efforts to restore the l.8 million residents to Dublin rule now seem plausible.

Relevant to current interests is a Northern Ireland Assembly divided into Unionists which largely support retention by the Crown, and Nationalists which want alliance and generally sovereign rule by the Irish Parliament or Oireachtas as envisioned in accords signed early in the last century. The Unionists are fiscally conservative Protestants who compose about 42% of the region's population. The Nationalists are also called Republicans and are largely Catholic with about 41% of the electorate. They have a left wing political platform. Both groups are supported by religious-based terrorist organizations which have marred the political integration. These groups include the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and the provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) that was largely neutralized by a 1998 Good Friday Peace accord which introduced them as a political power through Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein is the second largest voting block within the Northern Ireland Assembly with 29 of the 108 seats. They hold four ministerial positions and 5 of the 18 seats afforded the British House of Commons though these are "abstentionist". The members voluntarily don't vote, but since 2002 receive "allowances for staff and take offices in House of Commons". The largely Catholic grouping is also represented in Dublin where it is out of power, but the second largest opposition party with 14 of the 166 seats in the DŠil ireann. The lower house of Parliament

Sinn Fein reportedly had links to Libya's Muammar Qaddafi through the IRA, and now espouses Democratic Socialism as does its competitive partner the Social Democratic Labor Party of Northern Ireland (SDLP). The SDLP renounced violence in achieving its goal of Irish rule, but holds only 14 of the 108 seats..

The Catholic-linked parties have been a concern to international investors. The Protestants, that are historically backed by Westminster, are uniformly pro-market in leadership. At this writing, perhaps even more so than their benefactors in Westminster. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was founded by recently deceased Ian Paisley who also established the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster. The DUP holds 38 seats compared to Sinn Fein's 29 in the Belfast Assembly and works closely with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) which holds 13 of the 108 seats. Both are "Eurosceptics" (i.e. opposed to EU-type political integration) and the DUP is especially opposed to any European Union commitment. That polarity in economic focus has translated into smart money support for the Protestants. This despite the demographic advantage held by the Catholics in both the north and south. About one half the population in the north is Catholic. In the south there is a patchwork quilt of churches, but the area is largely Catholic.

The differing socio structures competing in the Northern region have led to an Assembly largely void of coherence or continuity. It has been forced to suspend its sessions four times since its creation in 1998. There was a complete closure from 2002 to 2007 and power was temporarily moved to the Northern Ireland Office. More recently it has lacked a Speaker since October of 2014. There is little chance the chamber could rule itself as an independent body given its revolutionary history and activist leadership.

Race is apparently not a significant factor in the Northern Irish divisions. The Protestants, mostly Anglicans and Presbyterians hail from England's southern and northern regions respectively, but I'm told if passing each other on the street would be indistinguishable. Northern Ireland residents can opt for Irish or British citizenship immediately afforded if a parent is a native. The sports groupings can also generally play for either nation especially when it comes to the Olympics. Over 29% of passport holders indicate Dublin citizenship.

The region is quite wealthy by international standards generating over 20 billion Euros annually, and a per capita income of over $21,000. That is higher than North East England or Wales. Unemployment has dropped from a pre accord 1996 level of 17.2% to about 6.1% in August of 2014. The region enjoys high levels of tourism now along with capital intensive agriculture of wheat, potatoes, and barley. Manufacturing is prevalent especially near Belfast producing food items and electronics among other goods. Services are the vast majority of the economy with up to a 70% total share.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 actually provided a large degree of real power to the Assembly, but the pernicious players and external and internal bickering and violence have degraded its effectiveness. Westminster afforded the Assembly "Reserved" powers to include regulation of air and sea craft, shore seabed and subsoil resource management, postal service, import and export controls, even financial services among others. London retained "Excepted" powers largely for defense, foreign policy, immigration and taxation. Reserved and Excepted powers are classified as "transferred powers" in the agreement.

The tourism rise and much lower unemployment may be tied to the relative peace in the region since the Good Friday Agreement and curtailment of the "Troubles" or almost open warfare between Catholics and Protestants from 1969 to 1998. Over 3,000 neighbors were killed during this period- very high for a non Russian-tied Europe. Up to 50,000 were reported injured in protests and other demonstrations. There's still vitriol, but the open violence has subsided and the British have vastly reduced their troop presence in the region. Check points within the area actually existed limiting movement, but those too have been dismantled.

Ireland formally withdrew from the British Commonwealth in 1949 though it had de facto been a self ruling nation in all but the Northern region since 1937. At that time the Irish Free State envisioned in 1922 melded into the legal formality of the Republic of Ireland. Attempts to wrest the north from England continue and geo-cultural demographics do favor a reunion. However, the political movements are just so far left and radicalized that it is difficult to garner "heavy weight" international support. Hopefully that will change, but for now the hapless Assembly rumbles on without a speaker and continuity is uncertain though the trend appears to favor a united country. Again, time will tell!

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

Read past editions of Ralph Murphy's Common Cents