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City of Conflict Turns Into Key Election Battleground

Dara Doyle

(Bloomberg) -- It doesn’t take much to bring old tensions back to the surface in a city that’s synonymous with sectarian conflict.

As campaigning before the U.K. election on Dec. 12 heads into the final stretch, lampposts in Belfast are adorned with the red, white and blue of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party’s posters. Sinn Fein, formerly the political wing of the Irish Republican Army and the DUP’s most bitter adversary, is campaigning under the slogan “Time for Unity,” or reunification with Ireland. Both sides trade insults about alleged links to paramilitary forces.

Brexit may have blurred the lines between political tribes in the U.K., but in Northern Ireland it’s entrenched them even more. In Belfast, the stakes are even higher than usual in a city still divided by “peace walls” to keep the two sides apart. The DUP’s ability to keep the three seats it won here in 2017 could have implications beyond the troubled province. 

“Sinn Fein see the opportunity to replace two strong unionist MPs with two nationalist MPs,” said Emma Little-Pengelly, DUP member of parliament for south Belfast. “They hope to have two representatives pushing out unionists and pushing again for a united Ireland.”

Northern Ireland was back front and center of the national campaign on Friday, when Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of misleading voters on the impact of his Brexit deal on the region.

The DUP has played an outsized role in British politics over the past two years by giving the governing Conservative Party a parliamentary majority. Its refusal to support successive deals with the European Union was a key factor in the political impasse that the latest election is aimed at breaking. That means the traditional fight between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which barely used to resonate outside the province, is now amplified in importance.

Outside a Conservative majority, a hung parliament is the most likely outcome of next month’s election, according to bookmaker Paddy Power. That might put the DUP again in a position of kingmaker. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, refuses to take up seats in the U.K. Parliament because it doesn’t recognize British sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

DUP leader Arlene Foster told business leaders in Belfast this week that she saw a chance to exert significant influence in London after the election, pointing out her party had won “billions of additional investment” through their previous deal with the Conservatives.

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“For the DUP, the message is we could hold the balance of power again so vote for us to show we are strong supporters of the union,” said Bill White, who runs Belfast-based polling company Lucid Talk. “There's an element of knocking on the doors, and saying keep Sinn Fein out. On the other side, Sinn Fein say vote for us to keep the pressure for a border poll, keep the Brits out.”

Smaller Northern Irish parties were wiped out in the 2017 election. The DUP won 10 seats in total, an increase of two. Sinn Fein took seven districts, up from four at the previous election.

For many nationalists, next week’s vote is another chance to ramp up the pressure on the British government to hold a “border poll” within five years, or a referendum on reuniting Ireland. For unionists, it’s a battle to stem the green tide which they say threatens to engulf their British identity. The political editor of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper, Suzanne Breen, told the BBC’s Newsnight show  that the vibe of the campaign was not “in the gutter, it’s in the sewer” and reminiscent of the worst times of the conflict. 

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Gerry McDonnell, who describes himself as a “pro-nationalist” voter, blames Brexit for letting the Irish unity genie out of the bottle.

The question of Irish reunification is back on the agenda “big time now — not only just nationalists, but for some unionists too,” McDonnell, speaking as he left Belfast’s electoral office in the historic Cathedral Quarter. “Even unionist businessmen and farmers are considering it. That would never have happened 30 years ago.”

After the Catholic-dominated Republic of Ireland gained independence in 1922, the mainly Protestant north remained in the U.K. By the 1970s, low-level tit-for-tat violence erupted into the full-blown conflict known as the “Troubles,” which left more than 3,500 people dead.

It largely ended with the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, though attacks still occur. In Ballymena, about 25 miles from Belfast, last month, a man was attacked with a bat by a masked gang waving a knife in what police describe as a random sectarian attack. Tensions still simmer in Belfast too—this week, police officers in the city were targeted in a grenade attack.

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Politically, nationalists have been gaining on the unionists in recent decades. Indeed, two losses for the DUP would “push the momentum for a border poll,” said White, the pollster.

The division is particularly vivid in north Belfast. John Finucane, the city’s mayor whose lawyer father was murdered by loyalist gunmen, is challenging DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds, who was involved in an attack by the IRA in 1996. A policeman guarding Dodds while he visited his son in hospital was shot.

More recently, Dodds played a pivotal role in challenging the U.K. government’s Brexit agreement that would treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the U.K., a red line for his party. Other nationalist and unionist parties have stood aside to allow a straight fight in the district.

Likewise in the more affluent area of South Belfast, where Little-Pengelly of the DUP is being challenged by Claire Hanna of the Social Democratic and Labour Party after Sinn Fein decided not to risk splitting the vote. The DUP responded by issuing a press release asking if convicted terrorists would be campaigning for Hanna.

“They have to paint me as the pantomime villain,” said Hanna. “The DUP message is the union is under threat. They don’t want to talk about Brexit.”

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson.

To contact the author of this story: Dara Doyle in Dublin at ddoyle1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rodney Jefferson at r.jefferson@bloomberg.net

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