Spring is traditionally a time of regeneration – but in Northern Ireland, politics in the long-disputed territory is showing signs of remaining in the grip of a winter chill.
Just as local politics were starting to inch past the impasse between pro-Irish republicans and pro-British unionists, the two main unionist parties have found themselves at loggerheads – just in time for a British general election, which must be held before June 3.
Earlier this month, the Northern Ireland Assembly finally agreed to a deal on moving administration of policing and justice from the British parliament in Westminster to the devolved Stormont Assembly in Belfast – but it did so without the support of the once-mighty Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) that governed Northern Ireland from its foundation in 1920 until the original Stormont parliament was dissolved in 1973 amid rising violence.
The party's 18 local assembly members voted to reject the deal, complaining they had been "systematically ignored by [the] DUP and Sinn Féin as they jackboot through their agreement." Sinn Féin is the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
Liam O'Dowd, a professor at the school of sociology and social policy at Belfast's Queen's University, says that policing is one of the most important issues remaining to be settled in Northern Ireland, and that pressure was brought to bear on unionists by the British government in order to save the assembly from collapse.
"I can't help thinking that the pressure to get the deal done on policing and justice is to do with the dissident republicans – to 'fireproof' Sinn Féin and consolidate their supporters' opposition to dissident republicans," he says.
The UUP objected to the deal, which has the support of Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) on the republican side, as well as the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party and minor parties such as Alliance and the Green Party.
The move has sown confusion among unionist supporters. The UUP has joined forces with Britain's Conservative Party to create an electoral bloc called Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. The parties said the move was a significant step away from Northern Ireland's traditional politics, where unionists are supported mostly by Protestant voters and republicans by Catholics, and offered Northern Irish voters a voice in British politics for the first time.
Britain's Labour and Liberal Democrat parties do not organize in Northern Ireland. Irish parties Fianna Fáil and Labour have made some tentative steps northward, but only Sinn Féin and small socialist groups organize both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.
Objecting to handing policing authority over to local control has put the Ulster Unionists in the difficult position of opposing the policy of their larger Conservative partners. Many on the ground see this as an unwelcome return to sectarian form.
Conor Brady, a young professional in Belfast who says he is likely to vote for the SDLP, has concerns about the quality of local politicians, both in the Assembly and Westminster.
"I don't think that the NI Assembly is sufficiently sophisticated, politically astute, or has the requisite background or experience in judicial and governance matters to make a sufficiently decent fist of what is a complex and technical area," he says of the policing matter.
"In terms of whether the assembly represents me, you only have to look at the quality of debate in the Assembly to get a clear picture: the inarticulateness of members, their sheer inability to comprehend anything which may have the slightest degree of economic complexity ... and the willful use of clumsily inflammatory language, only combine to make me embarrassed that I voted for some of them," says Mr. Brady.
A still-divided society
Policing a divided society remains a touchstone for local politics. The abolition of the unionist- and Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary was a key demand in the peace process. The force has now been replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has a policy, controversial among unionists, of recruiting Catholics and Protestants equally.
"We have policing seminars at the university and one officer recently spoke about community policing in [republican] west Belfast. He noted that police still can't live there, and the situation in [unionist] east Belfast is more complicated than people often realize," said professor O'Dowd.
Despite the fact that the policing move effectively brings a permanent end to nine decades of hostility to the police on the part of Sinn Féin, Irish republicans remain concerned about the role of British military intelligence (MI5) in policing matters, and some have argued that a special police unit should take over the fight against dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.
A further fissure has opened up between the unionists on the question of presenting a united front against republicans.
Two constituencies in particular, south Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, are seen as having been "handed over" to republicans in previous elections due to splits in the unionist vote.
"Only 41 days remain to give unionists what they clearly want – agreed candidates in constituencies where a unionist can retake a seat from Sinn Fein or the SDLP," said DUP leader and first minister Peter Robinson earlier this month. "My door is always open," he added.
A DUP-UUP pact would create further tensions in the UUP-Conservative alliance, though, as the Conservative Party's official stance on Northern Ireland is to adhere to nonsectarianism.
Now divided unionists?
The DUP, currently the leading pro-British party, is also facing a reinvigorated challenge from former members. Traditional Unionist Voice is attacking the party for betraying its traditional evangelical Protestant and unionist principles.
"TUV rejects the Hillsborough agreement [on policing] because we see it as a 7-1 defeat for unionism,” a party spokesperson told The Christian Science Monitor. “We object to it because Sinn Féin will have a veto over all justice proposals and it continues to justify and glorify its past of murdering members of the security forces and, in addition, is another step towards all-Ireland policing."
The party is campaigning hard in two key constituencies: North Antrim, the seat currently held by DUP founder Ian Paisley, who announced his resignation on March 2, and East Belfast, the seat of Northern Ireland's first minister Peter Robinson.
"We're certainly going to go all-out in North Antrim but we're also targeting the DUP in other areas such as in east Belfast in order to unseat the chief architect of where we are now."
Mr. Paisley topped the last poll by 17,965 votes. His son, Ian Paisley Jr., will contest the seat for the party in the next election. In east Belfast, Mr. Robinson's majority is just 5,877 votes.
Hoping to reclaim its position as the top dog of unionism, the normally staid Ulster Unionist Party has taken the notable step of appointing high-profile candidates including former local television newscaster Mike Nesbitt, and Harry Hamilton.
Hamilton, who has been a party member since 1995, is better known locally by his stage name of Flash Harry, leader of a tribute band dedicated to playing the hits of British rock group Queen. Hamilton says having candidates from outside the professions that traditionally act as pathways into parliament is a positive step.
"A lawyer may not represent the experience of a small business owner," he says. "Politics has become a toxic subject among ordinary people.... Having people who speak in a more accessible language than that of lawyers and barristers is beneficial."
Mirroring the UUP, the moderate republican SDLP has named a journalist as a candidate. Fearghal McKinney will stand in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, hoping to capture the seat from incumbent Sinn Féin member of parliament Michelle Gildernew.
Unlike Sinn Féin, which abstains entirely from Westminster, seeing it as a foreign parliament, the SDLP does take its seats in the House of Commons, though the party does not involve itself in non-Irish matters.
Despite recent defections from the party in the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Féin is still riding high in Northern Ireland. The allegations of rape and sexual abuse surrounding Liam Adams, brother of party president Gerry Adams, have had virtually no impact on the party's support in its heartlands such as Gerry Adams's own constituency of West Belfast, according to opinion polls.
Northern Ireland is home to eighteen of the UK's 650 single member electoral constituencies. In the last general election, held in 2005, the DUP took nine seats, Sinn Féin five, the SDLP three, and the UUP just one.
The UUP's sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, will not be standing for the party in this year's election as she sees herself as a Labour supporter and objects to the party's link-up with the Conservative Party. Speculation is mounting that Hermon may cause further damage to the unionist family by standing as an independent candidate.