Post-Conflict Elections in Northern Ireland

Post-Conflict Elections in Northern Ireland

John D Brewer (Queen’s University Belfast)


As a devolved region, Northern Ireland has elections to its regional government and to Westminster. Sometimes they coincide; in May 2015 they do not. They differ little, however, in their reproduction of sectarian identity politics.

Post-conflict general elections in Northern Ireland are oddly familiar affairs. Political gains in the peace process as a result of power sharing are put on hold as all the parties in devolved government tear strips off each other. In that sense Northern Ireland’s general election will replicate the Coalition government in Britain and for the first time Britain will get a taste of what is routine in Ulster politics.

The difference is that Westminster and devolved elections in Northern Ireland revert to a form of sectarian identity politics that is unique in Britain, sometimes with a level of violence and intimidation that is a reminder of Northern Ireland’s ‘old politics’, but which is unusual elsewhere in Britain even in the new febrile political climate. On the mainland UKIP may get a few eggs, but even the occasional punch is so rare that many of us recall John Prescott’s famous right hand. In Northern Ireland’s peace process, however, election offices have been burned, death threats issued to politicians and fire bombs exploded. The non-sectarian Alliance Party offices, located in staunchly Unionist East Belfast, have been attacked frequently.

Northern Ireland’s power sharing devolved government though, will survive the feverishness of the general election no matter how volatile it becomes. This is because post-conflict Ulster politics is a highly orchestrated encounter. The main electoral battles are not between the two main governing parties, Sinn Fein (SF) on the Nationalist side and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the Unionist side. In devolved elections they compete to become the single largest party, thereby winning the right to choose the First Minister.. Rather then being between the two parties the outcome is determined by their ability to win the sectarian vote within their ‘tribe’. They compete only to outvote rival parties within the own community.

Identity politics has survived Northern Ireland’s political peace process and is rampant in devolved elections. The irony is that it is the political peace process that sustains it. The power sharing agreement was first introduced in the 1998 Belfast Agreement – or Good Friday Agreement, since the two communities even have different names for the process – and it has undergone several iterations. Its defining principle is that political parties have to nominate which divided community they represent in a two-community struggle. So there are two electoral races. The first is to be the largest party within each community. The second race is to be the largest party overall.

The first race is more important than the second. This is because the first determines the capacity of the parties to access the powers given to the winning party to represent group interests as they are protected under the agreement. It allocates the number of ministerial posts each party gets, determines the number of their seats on the power sharing executive (cabinet) and which ministerial posts they get to hold on a first choice basis. The second race is almost inconsequential given the constraints on the First and Deputy First Minister to do as they please because of the inbuilt protections on group rights and interests in the agreement.

There is, however, a third race in Northern Ireland’s May 2015 general election. This is the one for Westminster seats. This is the least important of them all. The same is not true in Scotland’s devolved administration. SF do not take up their Westminster seats anyway and thus do not vote in the lobby to give themselves influence in parliament. What matters in this race is primarily prestige within the landscape of the identity politics back home. It is important to SF for bragging rights to win more seats in the House of Commons than their rival the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the DUP likewise in relation to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

The 2015 General Election, however, may change the calculation that the third race is for status alone. A hung parliament may give the larger Northern Irish parties influence with a minority government. SF has already decided that this will not persuade them to overturn their long-established policy of abstentionism. The interesting struggle for influence is between the DUP and the UUP. This may explain why they have yet to agree to an electoral pact in which the other cedes to the pro-Union party with the greatest chance of preventing a Nationalist winning a Westminster seat.

A pact may well emerge at the last minute because they face a tough choice. Do they compete with each other for potential influence within the new politics of minority government in Britain or engage in old-style Northern Irish sectarian politics by focusing primarily on keeping ‘them ‘uns’ out? Electoral pacts are one way of reinforcing identity politics, tactical voting another. Sometimes electors choose to vote not for the candidate they prefer but for who has the best chance to keep their dispreferred candidate out. In Britain this tactical voting is normal in marginal seats and done on party preferences; in Northern Ireland it is based on sectarian identity politics: ‘them ‘uns’ are not a party but a whole community.

The landscape of post-conflict general elections in Northern Ireland has changed in one respect. Some British-based parties now seek election there. Both the Conservative Party and UKIP fight for votes in Northern Ireland – as part of reinforcing their image as UK-wide parties. The Greens always did have a presence in Northern Ireland. The British Labour Party has traditionally been aligned with the SDLP and refuses to put up candidates in Northern Ireland elections, although this has not stopped a lobby group mobilising for them to do so.

This is encouraged as a way of ‘normalising politics’ in Northern Ireland, getting it away from sectarian identity politics and moving the debate on from the issue of the constitution. I suspect the Labour Party knows to do so would only mire it more deeply in sectarian identity politics. The Conservative Party and UKIP have both been absorbed into Ulster’s special brand of politics, arguing strongly for the Union and, in UKIP’s case, against the peace process. UKIP’s candidates compete with Traditional Unionist Voice, a right-wing off-shoot of the DUP, for the unreconstructed Unionist vote.

The issues on which the general election will be fought will thus be very parochial. This is why it makes sense to exclude Northern Irish parties from the televised party debates in Britain. The local parties in Northern Ireland do not see it that way, and are threatening legal proceedings, since they welcome the airtime to better their local rivals. However, the persistence of sectarian identity politics, for which they themselves are to blame, makes them irrelevant to British politics.

The issues that will dominate political discourse in Britain in the coming weeks will be largely absent in Northern Ireland. There will be silence over Europe and the referendum. Immigration will hardly feature., nor even will austerity, or cheating on tax or benefits. The legacy issues from Northern Ireland’s conflict will dominate as a surrogate for political contestation over the morality of the war, the morality of the settlement, and the morality of dealing with the past.

Class politics will intrude in highly institutionalised ways that depart little from traditional identity politics. Class divisions within Unionism will erupt as the Loyalist Progressive Unionist Party tries to straddle the dilemmas of a strategy that complains both against a peace process that is supposedly anti-Protestant and against ‘big house Unionism’ that was supposedly in cahoots with the British and Irish governments in selling Loyalists down the river. The idea of aligning themselves with SF in pushing class politics against the rolling back of the Welfare State and against the structural disadvantages faced by both the Catholic and Protestant working class is impossible for the electorate to conceive of or for the parties to deliver.

SF is caught in the same dilemma though. As the only all-Ireland political party, they have an anti-cuts and anti-austerity election strategy in the Irish Republic (where an election is not yet being fought) while agreeing with the DUP, in Northern Ireland, to implement a form of austerity cuts imposed through the 2014 Stormont House Agreement that kept the peace process on track when it looked as if it would collapse. They claim this was done as part of their commitment to peace; their critics say it was a way of keeping themselves in government. Thus are the risks of change in Northern Ireland’s identity politics.

There is one further difference with British general election that needs to be stressed. Anti-politics is strong within Britain and reflects voters’ disillusion with politics as part of the late-modern social condition. In Great Britain it is advancing the election prospects of several small parties that are pushing single issue politics, small government, anti-state, anti-Europeanization and the like. In Northern Ireland, anti-politics is reflected more in non-voting.

Non-voting is highest in the cosmopolitan middle class as a result of their disillusion with slow progress in the peace process. These are precisely the sort of people who resist identity politics and who want change. This is another reason why identity politics continues: its persistence has so disillusioned the peaceniks that they are withdrawing from politics altogether. As a result of the default recourse to identity politics, elections are not used to vote in change in Northern Ireland because they deliver only more of the same.


John Brewer is a former President of the British Sociological Association and is now Professor of Post Conflict Studies in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University. He is a member of the UN Roster of Global Experts for his expertise on peace processes and was awarded an honorary degree from Brunel University in 2012 for his services to social science.