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Inertia in Northern Ireland ahead of UK vote

Belfast elections were once so notorious for voter impersonation that locals used to say "vote early, vote often." But now Northern Irish voters have little appetite for the general election, as Peter Geoghegan reports.

Only a handful of election posters hang from the lampposts along the Antrim Road in North Belfast, ahead of next week's general election in the UK. There is little talk of voting intentions in the bars and cafes. Facing their fourth major election in just 18 months - and with no sign of a return to devolved government in Belfast any time soon - few voters welcome another trip to the ballot box.

"I'm fed up with them all. Nothing is changing," says Suzie Miller, a volunteer at Peas Park, a community garden on the "interface" between nationalist and unionist communities in North Belfast. Now in its sixth year Peas Park, with its sprouting beds of lettuce and spinach and clucking chickens, has brought new life to what was once an area known for sectarian clashes.

But, a few miles away in Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland's devolved government, there is little sign of agreement. The almost decade-long power-sharing government between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed earlier this year in a row sparked by a botched green energy scheme.

Candidates for prime minister, Conservative Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were interviewed and answered questions on the same television program on Monday night. In a Survation poll for ITV's Good Morning Britain published afterwards, May's lead over Labour had dropped to six percentage points. The Conservatives were on 43 percent to 37 percent for Labour. 

Read more: Crisis in Northern Ireland as Brexit looms

Political impasse

Elections in March did little to end the impasse between the rival Irish republican and British unionist parties. The prospect of a swift reinstatement of devolution - always remote - effectively ended when British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap UK general election for June 8.

"(The general election) basically killed any negotiations immediately. They were already struggling with the talks anyway but the general election announcement left them dead in the water," says Neil Jarman, lecturer in the Institute for the Study of Conflict at Queen's University, Belfast.

Instead of sitting around a table negotiating, Sinn Fein and the DUP, the largest parties in Northern Ireland, are facing off against one another in a series of electoral battles. Nationalists are hopeful of making gains, buoyed by a record vote in March - which saw Sinn Fein finish just a single seat behind the DUP - and nationalist anger at Brexit.

Read more: DUP edges out Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland post-Brexit vote

A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union and fears are growing about the effect of Brexit, particularly on cross-border trade and the economy. "The indicators at the moment are that the British government is failing to appreciate the challenges of Brexit for Northern Ireland," says David Phinnemore, professor of politics at Queen's University, Belfast.

There is still a fundamental split in Northern Irish politics between nationalists and loyalists

There is still a fundamental split in Northern Irish politics between nationalists and loyalists

In the last UK general election, in 2015, unionists won most of Northern Ireland's 18 Westminster seats, but nationalists are confident of making gains, particularly in unionist areas that voted against Brexit - such as North Belfast.

North Belfast is one of the most deprived - and divided - districts in Northern Ireland. Over 500 people were killed here during the 30-year-long 'Troubles.' Flags and painted kerb stones still delineate between many Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist areas. 

North Belfast has voted unionist for almost 100 years but nationalists took three of the five seats here in March's devolved elections. 

Martin McAuley, North Belfast candidate for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), believes the Brexit vote could have a significant bearing on June 8.

In the shadow of Brexit

"For a constituency like North Belfast that is so divided to have a majority come out for a pro Europe result was a significant result. It was a broad coalition of Protestant, Catholic and others who came together to say they want to stay in the European Union," he told DW.

After taking two seats in North Belfast in March, Sinn Fein is hopeful of making a breakthrough. The onetime party of the IRA is calling for special status for Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the EU. "At the moment we have no clear plan of what Brexit means," says the party's candidate, John Finucane. "People are rightly scared of what this means for their children."

Read more: Sinn Fein leader urges Northern Ireland referendum on UK exit

Finucane represents a new generation of Sinn Fein politicians. A respected 38-year-old solicitor, Finucane's father, Pat, a human rights lawyer, was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in 1989. "I believe in politics as an opportunity to deliver real change," he told DW.

Change is something North Belfast badly needs. Almost two decades on from the 1988 Good Friday Peace Agreement, the area is still blighted by division and the legacy of violence. Huge corrugated iron "peace walls" separate nationalist and unionist communities.

"People thought after 1998 that there would be this peace dividend. But in communities like north Belfast this just isn't the case," says the SDLP's Martin McAuley.

Sinn Fein is hopeful of making an electoral breakthrough

Sinn Fein is hopeful of making an electoral breakthrough

No post-Brexit plan

Many fear that Brexit could create even more instability in Northern Ireland. Ulster Unionist Steve Aiken voted to remain in the EU, and now believes that the priority should be to restore power sharing to ensure a smooth exit.

"We need the NI assembly back up and running. The Scots have a plan, the Welsh have a plan. We do not have a plan," says Aiken. "We don't want any hard borders, we want to get the integrated electricity market up and running, we want to see the free movement of people, we want to make sure the agri-business isn't affected."

Brexit has not changed the fundamental split in Northern Irish politics, between nationalism and unionism. But Neil Jarman believes that a new generation is emerging that is less tied to the old divisions, but is still voting along traditional lines. For the moment.

"There is quite a big liberal constituency that isn't reflected in electoral politics. They go back into the Orange and Green trenches at election time then come back out after," he says.

What those voters choose - and whether they vote at all - could be key on June 8.

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