20 years devolution

The rise of the ‘others’: 20 years after devolution, a new middle ground in Northern Irish politics?

Published: 27 June 2019

Jonathan Evershed (University College Cork) looks at the recent success of middle ground parties in Northern Ireland.

While it is not yet possible to tell whether and how it can be sustained into subsequent electoral cycles, the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland’s ‘breakthrough’ in recent local and European elections represents a dramatic – and, prior to May 2019, largely unexpected – development, if not a sea-change, in Northern Irish politics. In local elections in 2015, 32 Alliance councillors had been returned to council seats in Northern Ireland. By May 2019, this figure had increased by 65 percent to 53. Increases in support beyond its traditional heartland in Greater Belfast, where the party also made some important electoral gains, were enough to carry Alliance Party councillors into seats in Derry (for the first time in twenty years) and on the Omagh and Fermanagh, and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon councils (for the first time ever). On 24th May, Alliance leader Naomi Long was able to ride this wave of support into one of Northern Ireland’s three seats in the European Parliament. For the first time in its history, Northern Ireland will be represented in Europe (albeit briefly) not by two Unionists and a Nationalist, but by one Unionist, one Nationalist and one ‘other’. Alliance’s successes were mirrored by smaller, but substantial, increases in support for other ‘others’, including the Green Party and People Before Profit (who both added 4 to their tally of councillors across the North). Combined these parties won 15 percent of all votes cast in Northern Ireland in the 2019 local elections. 

In a sense, and as Matthew O’Toole has argued, this 

“should not have come as a surprise. The regular Life and Times Survey of northern attitudes has, since 2006, shown that the largest group in Northern Ireland are not those identifying as unionist or nationalist, but those who identify as neither…There is unavoidable evidence that the constituency of unaligned voters for whom identity politics is either irrelevant or actively repellent is growing.” 

However, here-to-fore, a notable feature of this cohort is that it has been as, if not more, likely to support no party at all, as to lend its votes to ‘centrist’ or ‘other’ parties like Alliance. The political coming of age of the ‘others’ – if that is indeed what these election results represent – has been a long time coming. Sam McBride, among others, cautions against so simplistic a reading, noting that Northern Ireland has “on several occasions looked to be shifting towards parties not defined by the constitutional question, only for voters to revert to traditional orange and green voting patterns”. 

The recent results in Northern Ireland should, I think, be understood as part of the liberal, anti-populist backlash which was a feature of the 2019 European election cycle more widely. These results are mirrored, for example, in the unexpected renaissance of the Liberal Democrats (Alliance’s sister party and co-member of ALDE) across the Irish Sea, and the rise in support for Green parties across the continent. The latter, of course, also reflects the growing salience of climate change as an issue of utmost, immediate and enduring importance, from which Brexit and other trifles have distracted valuable political attention. Alliance’s electoral successes were also an important demonstration of the scale of Northern Ireland’s opposition to Brexit, and of widespread support – contra the DUP’s long-held and unrepresentative opposition to it – for the backstop as a minimum level of protection if Brexit goes ahead. Naomi Long attracted votes from both sides of Northern Ireland’s constitutional divide: from Nationalists looking to lend a preference to a strong anti-Brexit candidate and many Unionists opposed to the DUP’s positions on Brexit, marriage equality and other social and cultural issues. Finally, these results reflect mounting frustration – vociferously expressed at the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee by Fr. Martin Magill – with the political impasse which has seen Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions inactive for the better part of two and a half years. Talks to re-establish the Assembly and Executive have followed and these were approached, at least initially, with renewed vigour on the part of the DUP and Sinn Féin. 

Arguably, the recent rise of the ‘others’ has taken place not in spite of the collapse of Stormont, but because of it. This would seem to turn the promise of the Good Friday Agreement on its head. Power-sharing was, inter alia, intended to broaden Northern Ireland’s historically narrow political middle ground. But it has been the breakdown and absence of power-sharing that has precipitated the recent expansion of this space, and the growth in support for those parties that occupy it. As Newton Emerson has noted, if those who came out to support Alliance at the polls do get their way and the devolved institutions are restored, then this raises a conundrum: can their ‘post-sectarian’ preferences (a labelling of the Alliance Party’s politics with which SDLP MLA Nicola Mallon and Queen’s University Belfast’s Colin Harvey have, rightly in my view, taken issue) be accommodated in a renewed devolution settlement predicated on the primacy of conflicting ‘communal’ designations? As an aside, it is a personal and pedantically anthropological bugbear that ‘Unionist’ and ‘Nationalist’ are taken to be ‘communal’ labels. Unionism and Nationalism are not really communities in any meaningful sense. 

In any case, merely getting the Assembly up and running and the parties working together again is only part of the challenge. If the politics of Northern Ireland’s ‘others’ is to be given meaningful and institutionalised expression, then the mere re-establishment of Stormont is of little intrinsic value at all. Unless it is coupled with deeper and more meaningful political and structural changes (including to mechanisms like the petition of concern), and the extension (finally) of key rights – including to bodily autonomy and legal recognition of same-sex marriage – enjoyed by citizens in Ireland and Great Britain, then for the occupants of Northern Ireland’s new middle ground, the renewal of devolution may be case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. 

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