Is Northern Ireland moving past nationalist and unionist politics?

A series of "other" parties are challenging the assumptions of the power-sharing agreement at Stormont. 

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In 1998, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Irish Assembly was founded with a proportional voting system to ensure that both nationalists and unionists were represented fairly. Support for the current system within the United Kingdom has been strong for years and remains so, but the way in which people vote within this system is changing.

Most people in Northern Ireland identify as either nationalist or unionist, and have largely voted along these dividing lines for four major parties: Democratic Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Sinn Féin.

In recent years, turnout has been low: around 55 per cent at the last two elections. Simultaneously, there has been an increase in voting for parties which don’t designate themselves as unionist or nationalist. In both 2007 and 2011, the big four had a net loss of around 2 per cent, but in May 2016 the loss was much greater, at 6.5 per cent, with all four of the largest parties suffering a loss of votes. This suggests a more significant shift in voter behaviour, and one Brexit could amplify.

But who are these ‘other’ parties?

The biggest shock in last year’s election was People Before Profit going from zero to two MLAs. Michael Collins, a PBP candidate in this year’s snap election tells me, “In Belfast West this was dramatically illustrated when Gerry Carroll topped the poll, announcing himself as 'neither Nationalist or Unionist, but Socialist'”. PBP had come in eighth place in Belfast West in the previous election. Active in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, it campaigns as an anti-austerity party. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it also campaigned for Brexit during last year’s referendum.

Steven Agnew, Green Party MLA for North Down, tells me, “The position on the statue of Northern Ireland does not divide our party and should not divide our society.” The Green Party sees the requirement to designate as unionist or nationalist as enshrining sectarianism and therefore refuses to designate, having to accept the label ‘other’.

As PBP and the Greens have only 3 MLAs between them, Alliance emphasise they are “the only major party whose priority is building a united community rather than fighting battles related to orange-and-green issues, such as the constitutional future of Northern Ireland or relating to flags, symbols and emblems”. They too believe rules that require designation as unionist, nationalist, “promote institutional sectarianism”.

Kathryn Johnston, Vice-chair of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland, feels this change is needed:“The Good Friday Agreement took the question of the border out of everyday politics.” Since the constitutional question can only be settled by a referendum, the question of designation as nationalist or unionist is unnecessarily divisive to them. Their membership, currently over 3,000, is diverse but unable to stand officially, due to national Labour Party policy, which officially endorses the SDLP. After the party stood unofficially last year, a review into the ban is set to begin after the snap election.

So why are the established parties losing support?

Michael Collins says: “The PBP’s rise represents a huge frustration at the seemingly never-ending impasse at Stormont. This, along with increasing levels of austerity enforced on working class people, has led many to look for alternatives”. Both of their MLAs were elected in the two constituencies with the highest deprivation and unemployment.

Steve Agnew of the Green Party believes people have grown wary of politicians harking back to events of the past to justify their actions and attitudes today. “Yes, we should remember the past, but not be bound by it”. This is something he feels younger voters believe more strongly.

A spokesperson from Alliance added: “The politics of ‘them’ versus ‘us’, and over control of territory and resources, rather than any consideration of a shared vision and common goals for Northern Ireland, is failing to improve the economy or public services. Entrenched competition within various sections of the community rewards hard-line and exclusive politics. As a result, there’s an increasing failure to secure progress. This has led to people turning towards non-tribal parties”.

Aside from representing a change in Northern Irish attitudes, the rise of ‘other’ parties presents the Assembly with a problem: cross-community support. This is the mechanism whereby certain Assembly resolutions require support from at least 50 per cent of both nationalist and unionist MLAs in order to protect each community from legislation that favours the other. By only giving this power to nationalist and unionist parties, it excludes any MLA who designates as ‘other’ from what are usually the biggest decisions.

A good example of this is the vote to legalise gay marriage. In 2015, the Assembly voted, for the fifth time, on recognising marriages between two people of the same sex. In a narrow victory (53-51), most MLAs voted in favour. However, the DUP were able to veto the law through a ‘petition of concern’ by claiming it did not have cross-community support. While it was true that a majority of unionist MLAs opposed equal marriage rights, it is not true of the wider Northern Irish public. Ipsos MORI polling a few months before the vote showed 75 per cent of Catholics and 57 per cent of Protestants agreed that gay couples should have equal marriage rights.

Religious affiliation is, unsurprisingly, talked about a lot in relation to identity and voting intention in Northern Ireland. The proportion of those identifying as protestant has declined sharply in each of the last few censuses. At the same time, the percentage of Catholics has risen slightly, while there has been a sharp increase in those selecting ‘no religion’.

According to Alliance: “Electing more cross-community parties will send the message that the current institutions, which are based on dividing Northern Ireland into sections, need a major overhaul”.

Steve Agnew of the Green Party believes that means “getting rid of community designation and the petition of concern, which acts as a veto”.  He is, however mindful that these institutions were part of the ‘People’s Agreement’ and major changes should not be made without public consent. I would propose a constitutional convention (an opportunity to review the Good Friday Agreement) because I believe people are ahead of the traditional parties in terms of dealing with difficult issues”.

Kathryn Johnston of Labour also believes the petition of concern should be suspended, as she feels it is used by parties to avoid alienating their supporters, rather than to protect communities. She adds that “people living in Northern Ireland have told opinion poll after opinion poll they support an integrated, secular, comprehensive education system, cross community housing stock, and measures to prevent homophobic and racial hate crimes”, but feel these are all issues that the major parties ignore.

Among these major issues is the fact that Northern Ireland is still governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, rather than the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies in the rest of the UK. Women in Northern Ireland are therefore forced to travel to the rest of the United Kingdom for private terminations (at a price). Many women have been denied the right to access terminations because of the prohibitive costs involved. This has therefore made Northern Irish women's full reproductive rights a class issue, as well as a human rights issue.

Since the last election, we have had both a referendum result that the majority of Northern Ireland voted against, and a new Prime Minister who is pushing for the kind of Brexit that will put the Good Friday Agreement at risk. Aside from the DUP, all major parties backed Remain, and aside from PBP, all ‘other’ parties backed Remain. This presents the people of Northern Ireland with a new dynamic to the way in which they usually vote. With hard Brexit potentially leading to a hard border, or even an Irish reunification referendum, perhaps more voters will move from both unionist and nationalist parties to these ‘other’ parties, in order to keep the peace process intact.