Posted on behalf of Gerard McCann and Paul Hainsworth
This blog builds upon a series of reports on the European Parliament elections in Northern Ireland by the authors. Previous reports are available free online in a virtual issue of Irish Political Studies on Local and European Parliament elections http://explore.tandfonline.com/page/pgas/fips_elections
As expected with the European elections in Northern Ireland, the traditional cultural and political fault lines have appeared as forcefully as ever with the expectation being that Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party will take two of the three seats and the bulk of the votes. This election – together with the Local Council elections this time round – has given the population of the North another opportunity to restate their entrenchment on the constitutional issue.The nationalist vote has the additional interest of the possibility of Alex Attwood of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) succeeding the Unionist Party’s long standing MEP Jim Nicholson. The possibility of having a two-thirds bloc from the nationalist community representing the people of Northern Ireland in Brussels has however caused some disquiet within the unionist camp. The DUP have rallied around their candidate Diane Dodds with the call not to split the unionist vote. This strategy is an attempt to ensure the seat of the Ulster Unionist candidate.
The return of the three sitting MEPs is the most likely scenario on polling day, but any break in this status quo will possibly prompt a wake-up call to the unionist electorate on the problematic aspects of a split vote. With six unionist parties fielding candidates, the options for the unionist community are as diverse as they have ever been. It leaves the possibility that such a spread of votes could permit the SDLP to steal the final seat with marginal shifts in voting patterns. Beyond the rhetoric of national identity and cultural preference one notable issue has emerged in the hustings that has caused concern across civil and political society and that is the spike in racial attacks since Christmas, increasing by thirty percent at the hands of a new perverse campaign by some paramilitary groups. The numbers of violent attacks on the ethnic minority community has become an unwelcome and uncomfortable debating point for the candidates. The introduction of the United Kingdom Independence Party candidate into the field has provided additional fuel to the debate over immigration and how the society has dealt with integration. It may be a standard point of discussion across the EU, but within the still largely homogenous and conservative society of Northern Ireland immigration policy and racism are not topics that the politicians have been used to discussing. It has led to an awkward discourse beyond the ritual mud-slinging of Northern elections.