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The Northern Irish Party System
Unlike other European societies, political parties in Ireland, North and South, crystallised around ethno-national rather than social cleavages with the advent of mass suffrage. (Mitchell, 92) After partition, however, the party systems in the two states diverged. While within a decade the Irish Free State made the transition to a relatively normal political system, characterised by the alternation of power, the Northern Irish party system remained focused on the constitutional issue. (Mitchell, 92-3) The result was, as in any ethnic party system, that parties identified their sectional interest with that of the whole. (Mitchell, 93)

Despite all this, I would agree with Paul Mitchell that Northern Ireland’s party system is much closer to a normal liberal democratic system than most commentators give credit for. (Mitchell, 94) Most developed party systems are centred around cleavages in society. It just happens that the primary cleavage in Northern Irish society is based on ethnic identity rather than class, region or religion. Although I do not totally accept the rational theory of voter choice - I believe that voters choose more on perception of general competence than on issues - there is some truth in Paul Mitchell’s comment that "Party competition in Northern Ireland is not simply - or even primarily - a reflection of ineluctable ancient antagonisms. Indeed, it is better understood as an electorally rational contest for position within the constraints of a segmented dual-party system." (Mitchell, 114)

Unlike their counterpart south of the border, the ruling party in Northern Ireland did not split upon partition and comfortably won the first two Stormont elections. Nationalists initially boycotted Stormont until 1927, and then again from 1932-45. (Mitchell, 95)

The abolition of PR was to prove a seminal event in Northern Irish politics. While, contrary to popular belief, it did not adversely impact on Nationalist representation, it did severe damage to the NILP and the sundry leftist and more ethnically progressive Independent Unionists. Indeed such had been Craig’s aim all along. (Hennessey, 44; Hadfield, 52-54) Northern Irish party politics became extremely sterile in the ensuing decades. With the change in the electoral system, the Unionists were insulated from any potential challenge to the Protestant vote. The Nationalist Party was feeble opposition indeed, and Nationalist politics, largely despondent and negative, retreated into sabre rattling in the Irish News. During the sixties it was not only squeezed by Republican Labour and National Democrats, who were prepared to pro-actively engage with the system for betterment of the Nationalist lot, but also by the mainstream Labour Party, who peaked in the 1964 Westminster Elections with over 25% of the vote.

The eruption of the troubles caused a remoulding of the political party system. All of the current ‘big five’ parties, with the exception of the UUP, were founded in 1970-1. The period saw three key processes occurring in each of the NI party blocs. Within the Unionist bloc, the Ulster Unionist Party fragmented, although the bulk of the party remained together. Within Nationalism, the opposite progress occurred with at least the constitutional elements of the ‘forty shades of green’ combining to form the SDLP. Finally within the political centre, the NILP was unable to survive the strains of the troubles and was effectively replaced by the Alliance Party, although the latter was substantially more middle class than the former.

This period also saw the re-introduction of Proportional representation for all bar Westminster Elections. The end-product of a combination of this and the above-mentioned fracturing of the Unionist vote was the end of the period of a UUP dominant party system and the emergence of a competitive party system. After an initial profusion, the ‘70s saw a gradual decline in the number of Unionist parties until the 1979 European Elections, which essentially confirmed the two party dominant nature of Unionist politics. Among Nationalist parties, the 1970’s the SDLP was almost hegemonic. Sinn Féin were committed to abstentionism, and the Irish Independence Party and the Republican Clubs presented little electoral threat to anyone. In any case, by the end of the decade the Republican Clubs were on their way to jettisoning Nationalism to become the bi-confessional Workers’ Party.

The second major catalyst for the Northern Ireland party system was the 1981 Hunger Strike. Fermanagh and South Tyrone Abstentionist MP, Frank Maguire died, in circumstances which proved to be fortuitous for Sinn Féin. Hunger Striker Bobby Sands was returned in the resultant by-election, just a few weeks before his death. The hyper-charged atmosphere led to electoral success for various Republican Splinter parties, who polled 7.7%. As a result, Sinn Féin decided to enter the electoral arena. This marked a transition to the current party system. Between 1982 and 1993, despite various waves of support for others, by and large one could predict the order in which the five parties would come in any election (UUP 1st, SDLP 2nd, DUP 3rd, Sinn Féin 4th and Alliance 5th). Sinn Féin’s emergence brought a substantial number of voters to the polls who had traditionally abstained, and therefore did not impact so much on the SDLP as increase the total nationalist poll.

Although, Mitchell (101) characterises the system since 1982 as essentially constant, since the IRA and Loyalist cease-fires a number of new factors have developed. Firstly, a much greater fragmentation of the party system, notably on the Unionist side, with currently six unionist parties represented in the Assembly. Notably in the centre, the a series of parties has emerged throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s each attempting to replace the Alliance Party, and each failing. The NIWC are but the latest attempters, and it is too early to tell how successful they will be.

The other major change has been the rocketing of the Nationalist vote, from 34.7% in the 1993 Local Government Election to 39.7% in the 1998 Assembly elections, an increase of 1%/year, and the corresponding fall of the Unionist vote, dipping below 50% in a number of elections. It is an established fact that the ratio of Catholic to Protestant births was particularly high in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so some of the increase may be due to these new voters coming on the register. However, some of it doubtless due to differential rates of abstention. To put it crudely, everyone knows how most people in Northern Ireland would interpret a turnout 85% turnout in Coalisland and a 60% turnout in Bangor. This is, in my view, not merely a function of ethnic differences, but also of differences between the high turnout (and majority Catholic) rural south and south-west, and the low turnout (and majority Protestant) Belfast Metropolitan Area.

The 1999 European Elections may mark another watershed, however. Many smaller parties virtually bankrupted themselves during the 1998 Assembly campaign. The European Elections have the smallest field of candidates ever for a Euro Election. This may well mark a return to a less fragmented party system

Nationalist Politics

The SDLP was formed in 1970. Its initial cadres of MPs came from a wide variety of sources, and it very soon sucked up practically all Nationalist votes in Northern Ireland, although initially many Republicans abstained from elections totally. Since 1982 it has been in direct competition with Sinn Féin for the Nationalist vote. In the 1980s and early 1990s much of both Irish and British government policy in relation to Northern Ireland was designed to bolster the SDLP against Sinn Féin, not least the Anglo-Irish Agreement. (Elliott, 89) This has left the SDLP open to accusations of being ‘British lapdogs’.

The Party was essentially pro-power sharing in early stages, but later, particularly under the influence of Hume, moved toward a joint authority position, although there was always a strong internal settlement faction within the Party. At the Agreement, the SDLP rolled back significantly its previous demands with regards to cross-border institutions and essentially accepted the UUP’s position on all Ireland institutions. It may have been influenced in this by the growing Nationalist electoral strength, and the fact that the presence of Sinn Féin in a cabinet would likely result in an equal number of Nationalist and Unionist seats. Nonetheless it was a significant compromise by the SDLP.

Sinn Féin emerged on to the political scene in a blaze of glory in the early 1980s, only to sink into slow decline after the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In 1992 it reached what in many senses was its electoral nadir losing West Belfast to the SDLP, and in the 1994 Euro Elections they were outpolled 3:1 by Hume. The Party seemed ideologically directionless and trapped in a ‘war’ which it could not hope to win.

Although there was some movement in position during these years, most notably the decision to end abstentionism in the Dáil, movement was glacially slow and often misunderstood by the rest of the British Isles who little understood the niceties of Republican philosophy. Sinn Féin were adamant that they were not the same as the IRA, but Tonge (63-4) notes that most observers saw this as a clever way of playing ‘good cop, bad cop’ politics.

Even after their entry into negotiations, Sinn Féin seemed essentially unrealistic in their aims, laying down pre-conditions which were further than the SDLP or Irish Government would go, let alone the Unionists. A week before the on Monday of Holy Week, 1998, there was a major statement by Adams in the Irish News in which he laid down new minimum conditions for SF, most notably a reversal of the Party’s previous ‘no internal settlement’ position. A week later Sinn Féin signed up to an Agreement which was substantially weaker than even these weakened demands. Since the Agreement, attention has focused on issues such as decommissioning and prisoners rather than the constitutional nuts and bolts of the Agreement, which are essentially Unionist. Sinn Féin have got away with selling their supporters substantially less than they promised through the Peace Process back in 1993.

The SDLP was clearly dominant until the 1996 Forum elections. Since then the Sinn Féin vote has increased at every election. Although the SDLP have tried to cast this aside as protest voting, this explanation has looked less and less credible at each election.

Relations between the SDLP and Sinn Féin have never exactly been friendly. In 1982, SDLP voters transferred to Alliance rather than Sinn Féin by a 4:1 ratio - even in 1997 there was still a marginal preference for Alliance. Bitterness still characterises inter nationalist relationships much more so than among Unionism, despite the events of the past 14 months. For example, the SDLP have still refused to elect a Sinn Féin mayor of Derry, and in Belfast it took Alliance to essentially badger the SDLP into supporting SF for key posts, although other councils have seen warmer relationships. Despite Hume’s obviously warm relationship with Adams, the cosiness has not exactly been infectious within the SDLP. There may be a common position on the Agreement, but tensions between SF and the SDLP still run deep.

Unionist Politics

The Ulster Unionist Party is by far the oldest party in Northern Ireland with its beginnings in 1905. (Elliott, 84) It had a fairly hegemonic position with respect to the Unionist electorate until the 1960s - Elliott (85) asserts that the key date was O’Neill’s 1965 meeting with Lemass. The 1969 election was fought by 5 different Unionist parties, while by 1970 the monolith had firmly cracked with the expulsion of five Stormont MPs. Although there are repeatedly periods in which the UUP appears mortally weak, it has always bounced back to see of challenges in the past. Whether it can regain its position as largest party in the country from the SDLP is an interesting question.

The Democratic Unionist Party was formed in 1971 through the coming together of the Protestant Unionist Party with a number of expelled right-wing Ulster Unionists. (Elliott, 85) The party’s political philosophy can best be described as populist, to the left on socio-economic issues but for to the right on social issues. There is a degree of tension between the Protestant fundamentalists, centred around McCrea and Robinson, and the largely urban secular loyalists, led by Robinson and Wilson. The party’s strongholds are in working class areas and among farmers, though it does poorly in rural areas which are predominantly Church of Ireland. Ironically, the DUP’s supporters tend not only to be younger and poorer than the UUP’s, but also less religious. (Evans and Duffy, quoted in Mitchell, 108) "The DUP is successful in eliciting support from a combination of rural, often fundamentalist, Protestants and much less religiously committed working-class loyalists, impressed by the stout defence of Ulster offered by the Party." (Tonge, 57)

Relationships between the UUP and DUP have been, until recently, characterised by often bitter language but agreement on essentials. This contrast with Nationalism essentially reflects Evans and Duffy’s work, based on NISA data, which shows a much greater degree of homogeneity among Unionist attitudes than among Nationalists. (Quoted by Breen and Devine, 60-1) The story of Unionist politics in many senses confirms the dangers inherent in an ethnic party system, in that the UUP have constantly looked over their shoulder at the DUP. Mitchell claims that, for longer than was good for themselves, the UUP tried to combat the DUP by being a stronger opponent of the IRA or governmental moves that the DUP. (Mitchell, 108)

This analysis is slightly unfair as it pays scant regard to the complexities of Ulster Unionist opinion. From the mid-1960s on, with the possible exception of a year or so after the AIA, there has never been a period when the UUP was in any way united. The Molyneaux’s strategy as UUP leader was simply to hold the various factions in the party (devolutionist vs. integrationist, reforming vs. traditional) together.

What would have happened had free Unionist competition persisted throughout the ‘80s we shall never know, as the Anglo-Irish Agreement shepherded in a pan-Unionist front, a move which was spectacularly, if unintentionally, successful for the UUP as it reduced the DUP to fighting just a handful of seats and seeing their vote share plummet to 1970s levels.

By the 1990s it became clear that the AIA was going to remain in the absence of an overall settlement. Although there was no radical difference of opinion between the parties during Brooke-Mayhew, the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, and the paramilitary cease-fires in 1994 widened the gap between them once again, although both rejected the 1995 Framework Document.

The election of Trimble as party leader, given his record at the ‘siege of Drumcree’ was perceived as a move to the right by the UUP, although soon after being elected Trimble met with the Taoiseoch, the first UUP leader to do so since O’Neill. (Tonge, 54) As a consequence, relations between Trimble and Paisley, which were expected to be comparatively cordial, deteriorated rapidly, particularly after the UUP’s decision to remain in talks after Sinn Féin’s entry in September 1997. As one might expect, they have been fairly abysmal since the signing of the Agreement.

Centre Politics

The centre ground for the first half century of Northern Ireland’s existence was dominated by the NILP. However, the NILP proved to be too broad a coalition to weather the troubles, and they were soon displaced by the Alliance Party.

There is a common hypothesis that the NILP and Alliance Party’s vote have both been essentially inversely related to the level of tension in society. McAllister and Nelson noted in 1979 that it was (quoted in Mitchell, 95) "virtually a barometer of community tension". However, I would argue that this analysis does not hold true for the Alliance Party, as some of its strongest ever results came in the face of great community tension - e.g. 1973 against the background of 200+ murders per year, 1982 in the aftermath of the hunger strikes, 1987 in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Much has been made of the squeeze of the Alliance vote in the 1990s, it is often forgotten that much of this has been at the expense of groups such as the NIWC, Greens and Labour. The non-aligned bloc still polls consistently over 10% in elections. In the 1998 Assembly elections the difference between Alliance winning and failing to win a cabinet seat was 2 Assembly seats. The 2 seats won by the NIWC would have likely went Alliance had the NIWC not been in existence.

One Party System or Two?

Paul Mitchell comments that, "At each election, it is only a mild exaggeration to say that two simultaneous but largely separate elections take place." (Mitchell, 93)

I would disagree with Paul Mitchell’s analysis that Northern Ireland elections are largely about mobilisation of each community. (Mitchell, 94) Rather, in recent years at least, elections have become competitions for the leadership within each community, and to an extent a giant social attitudes survey of the strength of desire for compromise within society.

Mitchell quotes Horowitz (Mitchell, 102) in noting that in such a system, the premium for a political party is the mobilisation of the vote in its own section of the community. Moreover, given the importance of being seen to dominate one’s own ethnic bloc in Northern Ireland’s fragmented party system, it also encourages moderate parties to move to the right to try and outdo their extreme rivals. The position of the Alliance Party has weakened this tendency somewhat in Northern Ireland, and mainstream nationalism and unionism faced competition from the centre as well as the extremes. However, as the Alliance Party has waned over the last decade so has this important brake on the SDLP and the UUP. I also think that the electoral experience of the 1980s disproves this. The DUP decline after 1981 did not come as a result of any perceptible UUP shift to the right - Molyneaux was already paralysed for fear of splitting his party - but more because a sizeable section of the Protestant community are out of tune with the DUP’s image, and that only the hypercharged atmosphere of the Hunger Strikes caused them to vote DUP in the first place.

The thesis, associated with Horowitz and Lijphardt, that ‘moderate’ ethnic parties in divided societies cannot compromise due to the presence of ‘ultras’ has been very influential in shaping scholarly studies on Northern Ireland. However, it is very patronising towards the masses. It assumes that the masses are merely tools of the political élite, and that they will always be swayed by the more extreme members of the élite. This was not always the case, even during the troubles. Indeed, Mitchell (B785) admits how the tub thumping approach of the DUP has often been seen by Unionists as damaging to their position, and ultimately has damaged the DUP.

As Mitchell (115) again noted in 1997 that it was significant that no leader except John Hume had been able to lead their party in a direction in which it did not want to go. Of course the difference was that John Hume led his party away from the centre rather than towards it. While this analysis may not hold quite so much water post-Good Friday, Adams and Trimble have not yet succeeded in securing the Agreement, and Mitchell’s thesis may yet be, unfortunately, help up.

At the same time, Mitchell (Mitchell B, 774-5) notes that not only is ethnicity not automatically determined at birth, but also notes of the NISA surveys of 1989-91 which show the multi-ethnic nature of the Alliance vote. That presence of a consistent 10-15% vote for Alliance and other non-ethnic parties is itself a major contrast with other divided societies and is of the same size as, e.g. the white population of South Africa or the black population of the USA.

Finally, one must look at pluralist theory, associated most closely with Lipset. Budge and C O’Leary compared Glasgow with Belfast and found the key difference was that in Glasgow there was considerable cross-cutting between party loyalty and other characteristics, including religion. In Belfast there was an exceptionally high level of correspondence between party and religion. Thus mutually reinforcing cleavages make society ultimately unstable. (See McGarry and O’Leary, 320) Even if this is the case one should not necessarily despair. Other societies, most notably the Netherlands have been in the same position and have been transformed into pluralist, liberal democracies.

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