The Decline of Ethnic Politics? The UK Election and the Northern Ireland Party System

Guest post by Matthew Isaacs

A mural commemorating republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died in British prison, in Belfast. By Dave Sandford.
A mural commemorating republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, who died in British prison, in Belfast. By Dave Sandford.

While the United Kingdom settles into another Conservative government (and exit pollsters reevaluate their methods), the most surprising turn of events in last week’s election may not be the rise of the Scottish National Party or the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. Especially for students of political violence, the most fascinating story may turn out to be the dog that didn’t bark: the surprising decline of ethnic politics in Northern Ireland.

For decades, Northern Ireland’s parties (generally filed under “other” in last week’s election coverage) have been defined by strong ethnoreligious boundaries. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) compete for the votes of the Unionists (those in favor of the Union with Great Britain, most of whom are Protestant), while Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) compete for the votes of the Nationalists (those opposed to the Union with Great Britain, most of whom are Catholic).

The political salience of ethnic boundaries saw a meteoric rise during the communal violence that plagued Northern Ireland from the 1960s through the 1990s. Both sides saw a proliferation of paramilitary organizations founded on ethnoreligious grounds, including the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) on the Catholic side, and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) on the Protestant side. As Peter Taylor recounts, the UVF declared itself an organization “composed of heavily armed Protestants.” The UVF’s rallying cry, shared with the DUP in the 1970s, was “For God and Ulster.” In 1983, Sinn Fein’s constitution declared its primary principle to be “the allegiance of Irishmen and Irishwomen… to the Sovereign Irish Republic.” Its primary goals included “the complete overthrow of British rule.”

Almost two decades after the Good Friday Agreement put an end to the Troubles in 1998, the ethnoreligious boundaries that have defined the Province’s party system are beginning to show cracks. Last year, DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Edwin Poots called on conservative Catholics to vote for the DUP on the grounds of social policy. In February, DUP leader Peter Robinson met with Catholic Bishop Noel Trainor to discuss how the party can better market its conservative social policies to observant Catholics.

In one sense, this is a natural alliance. The DUP’s opposition to abortion and gay rights is in line with the stance of the Catholic Church. Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP take a more liberal stance on these issues, leaving religious Catholics without strong representation.

In the historical context, however, this is a tectonic shift in party alignment. During the Troubles, the DUP’s conservative values meant a consistent emphasis on protecting the Union with Great Britain and a strong revulsion to the Republicanism of Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Although Republicans tended to askew religious politics in favor of secular nationalism, political alignments (and evangelical leadership) made the DUP naturally averse to all things Catholic.

On the other side of the ethnic boundary, Sinn Fein has also exhibited a willingness to underplay ethnic affiliations for a larger slice of the electoral pie. At the Ard Fheis (annual party conference) in March 2015, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stressed the economic burdens of the UK. “Austerity is the price of the union,” Adams explained. “It makes no sense to have two economies, two education systems, two health systems, two tax codes, two currencies on one small island.” This reliance on the economic argument against the Union is in stark contrast to the unambiguously ethnic Irish Republican narrative that has driven the party for decades.

In last week’s election, Sinn Fein lost the seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to the UUP. Although the UUP held the seat from 1981 to 2001, the upset is devastating given the seat’s symbolic role in the Troubles (the same seat was won by Republican Hunger Striker Bobby Sands in the April 1981 by-election, just weeks before his death). However, the loss of the seat to Unionists has been attributed not to demographic shifts in the district, but to a concerted effort by local pro-life campaigners to turn conservative Catholics away from the pro-choice Sinn Fein. Again, we see a move away from staunchly ethnic voting to voting on the basis of social values.

To be sure, these trends are neither fast paced nor completely unprecedented. Both the UUP and the SDLP have had the occasional cross-ethnic elected official. In the 1960s, UUP leader Terence O’Neil also sought to gain votes by appealing to an economic argument (though in his case it was for the benefits of the Union). However, these are the exceptions that prove the rule: cross-ethnic party members have consistently maintained a low profile, and the spectacular failure of O’Neil’s anti-communalism ushered in the rise of the more radical and staunchly ethnic DUP. The increasing willingness of top-level politicians from both sides to stress social and economic policies over ethnic allegiance remains unprecedented.

What accounts for these trends?

Considerable scholarly research has focused on when ethnic identity gains salience, particularly under specific political institutions, in certain demographic contexts, and under conditions of intergroup violence. However, surprisingly little research has examined the decline of ethnicity in post-conflict party systems.

One reason for this lacuna may be that the decline of ethnicity is relatively uncommon. Ethnicity remains a central component of many post-conflict party systems and the world is replete with high profile instances of ethnicity gaining, not losing, salience. However, a small number of other post-conflict democracies have seen shifts away from ethnic party systems. Just this week, South Africa’s Democratic Alliance, a majority-white party frequently seen as representing those who benefited from apartheid, welcomed its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane.

More importantly, the power-sharing paradigm favored by the peacebuilding community often involves structuring political institutions around explicit ethnic affiliations, as in the Dayton Accord in Bosnia and the Taif Agreement in Lebanon. These political systems cement the importance of ethnicity by mandating the distribution of political power on the basis of ethnic divisions. Findings remain mixed as to whether these systems effectively temper ethnic tensions or merely encourage further mobilization along ethnic lines.

Two important factors distinguish these systems from that established in Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement: flexibility and federalism.

First, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly based in Stormont operate on the basis of power sharing between parties, and require explicit communal affiliations (Unionist, Nationalist, or Other) for each elected member. These restrictions do not mandate a specific distribution of political power between ethnic groups and make no mention of divergence between the Unionist/Nationalist and Protestant/Catholic societal cleavages. Instead, political power is distributed in proportion to representation, and it is perfectly acceptable for candidates to work to convince Catholics to vote Unionist, or Protestants to vote Nationalist.

Second, these restrictions apply only to Stormont elections. For elections to the House of Commons in Westminster, politicians are free to appeal to voters on an entirely non-ethnic basis. In this sense, Westminster elections serve as a litmus test for changing dynamics on the ground in Northern Ireland. As social and economic issues take precedence, we may see voting in Northern Ireland begin to follow a cyclical pattern in which ethnicity remains salient at Stormont while declining over time in successive Westminster elections.

These trends point to a middle ground between the total institutionalization of ethnicity and the complete absence of ethnic representation in post-conflict agreements. Greater leeway in the representation of ethnic identity and multi-level electoral dynamics may have the effect of encouraging cross-ethnic politics without overlooking important questions of representation. With the proper structuring, post-conflict party systems may be able to encourage ethnic representation in one electoral venue while allowing experimentation in another.

Matthew Isaacs is a PhD candidate in Politics at Brandeis University. His dissertation examines the role of religious institutions in the political representation of ethnic identity in conflict.

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