The return of the centre?
A revitalised centre is critical to avoiding stalemate in Northern Ireland as the devolved nation faces the challenge of Brexit
More than any other part of the United Kingdom, the result of the Brexit referendum is making a significant impact in Northern Ireland. Ever since the Troubles came to an end in the late 1990s, Northern Ireland had begun to rebuild itself; the border with the Republic of Ireland opened up and levels of engagement across the divided Nationalist and Unionist communities began to increase.
Paradoxically with this increased engagement came an even sharper polarisation of the political scene. For most of the long years of the Troubles the two dominant political parties in Northern Ireland were the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Beside these parties Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party appealed to hardline Unionist voters and Sinn Féin appealed to hardline Nationalist voters. Between all of these markedly sectarian parties lay the Alliance Party, who mainly appealed to middle class voters from both traditions who did not wish to be considered either Unionist or Nationalist.
At the outset of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, both the UUP and SDLP remained the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties and between them they formed the bulk of the initial government of Northern Ireland. At this stage Sinn Féin were the junior nationalist party and the DUP were still boycotting cabinet meetings. but not their ministerial posts.
The SDLP’s fortunes lay mainly at the feet of the charismatic and visionary architect of the Northern Ireland peace process, the moderate Nationalist leader John Hume. Hume had dominated the SDLP for so long that following Hume’s retirement the SDLP had a succession of leaders from Hume’s own generation of 1960s Civil Rights activists. Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie and Alasdair McDonnell each presided over a steady decline of the SDLP. The younger support base of Sinn Féin gradually nudged support for the party to equality with the SDLP and then beyond. The Provisional IRA’s ending of its armed struggle in 1994 also helped to bolster support for Sinn Féin amongst Nationalist voters.
The DUP’s fortunes on the other hand also rose in parallel with Sinn Féin. The equally charismatic DUP leader Ian Paisley finally struck a deal with Sinn Féin at St Andrews in 2006, leading for the first time to a DUP and Sinn Féin led government in Northern Ireland. For many Unionist voters, who may not themselves be as hardline as the DUP, Ian Paisley and his party were seen as “insurance” against any Sinn Féin domination of the nationalist community. The DUP were also very successful in attracting much of the UUP talent to their party. Between 2003 and 2005, many leading UUP members such as Arlene Foster, Peter Weir and Jeffrey Donaldson left the UUP to join the DUP. The paradox of the political stability presided over by both Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness – both in many respects heroes to their own communities – was that it was the former extremist parties that took the lead roles in governing what was rapidly becoming a stable and prosperous Northern Ireland.
Today for many people in Northern Ireland, the effective DUP-Sinn Féin two party State seems too cosy a consensus. Sinn Féin and the DUP were happy to drive most decisions in Stormont until the row over the ill-fated Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme closed the Northern Ireland government down nearly two years ago. With the subsequent death of Martin McGuinness and the retirement of Gerry Adams, both in 2017, the new Sinn Féin leadership of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill have not yet managed to come to a new agreement with the DUP, however the DUP-Sinn Féin consensus is still very much at work in local government. As an example, last month’s decision by Derry and Strabane Council to approve a much hated and inadequate refurbishment of Derry’s historic Waterside Railway Station was largely approved by a group of Sinn Féin and DUP councillors at the planning committee stage. Both the Sinn Féin and DUP councillors refused to engage with those who were campaigning against the proposed scheme, while at the same time the same planning committee councillors were happy to be photographed with the promoters of the scheme in publicity photos.
It is the DUP and Sinn Féin that the British Government are largely conducting negotiations with regarding the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland and the smaller parties are largely excluded from discussions. Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, made the following remarks on the exclusion of his and the other parties from the negotiations when he gave oral evidence in March 2018 to the Northern Ireland affairs committee of the House of Commons;
“Of course I was not in the negotiations. The decision to exclude my party and the Ulster Unionist and Alliance parties—a huge number of people vote for those parties—was taken by your party and Sinn Féin. That is fine. That is what happened. I disagreed with it. It was set up in a way that was going to fail, and it has failed. I cannot tell you how far people agreed. There is lots of controversy about it. There are lots of papers out there. Everybody tells me that your party signed up to an Irish language Act, but that is for you to answer. It is for you to answer the people of Northern Ireland as to why we do not have a Government—you and Sinn Féin.”
With both Sinn Féin and the DUP attempting to exclude others at many levels in Northern Irish politics, what then of progressive politics in Northern Ireland? Two progressive parties are making significant progress. The Alliance Party received a massive boost in 2015 when Naomi Long was elected to Westminster for East Belfast following the retirement of former DUP leader Peter Robinson. Sadly Ms Long did not retain her seat in the 2017 snap election but became the new leader of the Alliance Party after her defeat. With the new energy of Naomi Long at the helm, the Alliance Party constantly punches well above its weight in the political debate. Strong showings in the NI Assembly elections in 2017, where Alliance held their 8 seats, shows that the party are making inroads. Alliance in particular have been highly vocal in their support of equal marriage in Northern Ireland, which remains illegal only in Northern Ireland – and for abortion rights.
The SDLP too are starting to mount a comeback. Since his election as leader in 2015, Colum Eastwood is revitalising what was a party that seemed to be in terminal decline. The SDLP are not quite out of Intensive Care yet – persistent rumours of a merger with Fianna Fáil in the Republic continue to circulate – however Mr Eastwood has also got many brighter and younger personalities on board, most notably Claire Hanna the energetic MLA from South Belfast.
On the Unionist side, the UUP are still very much in decline. Sylvia Herman, the Independent North Down MP, is the only anti-brexit voice from Northern Ireland that sits in the House of Commons. Sinn Féin’s policy of abstention from Westminster clearly damages the interests of both Northern Nationalists and anti-Brexit supporters from Northern Ireland. Former UUP MLA Basil McCrea attempted to form a new moderate Unionist party, NI21, but that party never took off and is now dead. Other moderate Unionist voices such as former Ireland Rugby star Trevor Ringland are still out there rightly challenging Nationalists regarding what a future Ireland should look like and how Unionists should be accommodated therein.
With Brexit, Northern Ireland faces its biggest crisis since the Troubles ended 20 years ago. On the one hand, progressives in Northern Ireland face a British pro-Brexit political establishment that appears to be happy to ignore Northern Ireland’s unique issues, especially over the open border with the Republic, and on the other, they must deal with the fact that the two largest parties remain unable to agree how to restore the devolved government.
In the absence of Stormont, the most difficult issues that the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot agree on are equal marriage, abortion rights and the status of the Irish language. Conor McGinn, the Newry-born Labour MP for St Helens is pushing a private members’ bill at Westminster to legalise equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Stella Creasy the Labour MP for Walthamstow is very actively involved with attempting to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. There is talk of another private members’ bill to put the Irish language on an equal footing with English in Northern Ireland. If an Irish born member at Westminster can do the impossible and break the logjam between the DUP and Sinn Féin then there remains some hope that the institutions can be restored, and that progressive politics might gain a foothold in Northern Ireland.
Naomi Long’s strong support base in East Belfast and Claire Hanna’s in South Belfast does show that there is a long term future for progressive politics, and progressive thinking in Northern Ireland, where many people have been disengaged with politics for years because of the old Nationalist-Unionist battles. The Alliance Party’s strong progressive message resonates with many voters. Turnout at the assembly elections, which usually sits at around 50%, rose to 64.7% in the last assembly election, that is indicative of a growing level of engagement with the electorate. If the SDLP can also regenerate themselves via its younger and more dynamic leadership, then Northern Ireland progressives will no longer need outside help from Westminster to bring positive social change to what remains one of Europe’s most conservative societies.