Northern Ireland: a return to ‘extremes’?

The increased vote for Ian Paisley's DUP reflects a new mood of disengagement, not a resurgence of 'tribal loyalties'.

The 2005 General Election in Northern Ireland provided some surprises. The Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), the ailing Irish nationalist party, confounded the pundits when it emerged with the same number of seats (three) as it won in 2001. Many had predicted that Sinn Fein’s Mitchell McLaughlin would outpoll SDLP leader Mark Durkan to take the Foyle constituency, which had been held by former SDLP party leader John Hume for more than a decade. On the day, however, Durkan triumphed, holding the seat with a comfortable margin of more than 6,000 votes (1).

But the most striking thing about the elections was the collapse of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). UUP leader David Trimble lost his seat to David Simpson, his little-known Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rival, by a margin of over 5,000 votes (a swing of 8.1 per cent). The UUP’s Westminster showing was reduced from five seats to one, while the DUP increased its representation from six to nine (which equals half of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats) (2).

For most of the twentieth century the UUP was the establishment party - it was born out of the campaign to thwart demands for Irish independence from Britain in the early twentieth century. With the founding of the Northern Irish statelet in 1920, the UUP became the dominant party in the devolved government. It was intimately tied to every major institution in society: business, the military, the civil service, the church and the Orange Order (which was key for maintaining a cross-class Protestant alliance against ‘Catholic’ Irish nationalism). In short, the UUP was the key institution through which British rule was administered in Northern Ireland (3).

The Unionist one-party state was challenged in the late 1960s by campaigns for equal civil rights for Catholics. The imposition of Direct Rule from Westminster in 1972, in response to the outbreak of open warfare between Irish republicans and the British state, ended UUP control of Northern Irish politics - and created the space for the DUP to emerge as a minor party.

Direct Rule, however, did not end the dominant position of the UUP within Northern Ireland. When the British government set up the Sunningdale power-sharing Assembly in 1974, the UUP was split over whether it should share power with the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) - the reformist Irish nationalist party cobbled together by civil rights campaigners, Catholic trade unionists and middle-class Irish nationalists. The UUP’s continuing influence over political life was shown by the fact that key figures from the party dominated both the power-sharing Assembly and the opposition to the Assembly (David Trimble, incidentally, was a significant figure in the opposition).

Throughout 25 years of war the UUP maintained its position as the dominant party of Unionism and the largest party in Northern Ireland. The DUP looked like it might challenge the UUP for the leadership of Unionism when, in 1979, DUP leader Ian Paisley topped the poll for the elections to the European Parliament, with 29.8 per cent of first-preference votes. In subsequent 1981 local government elections, fought in the highly polarised political environment of the republican H-Block hunger strikes, the DUP polled 0.1 per cent higher than the UUP. In the elections to Westminster, however, the UUP continued to maintain its dominance - it took 34 per cent of the poll in 1983, compared with the DUP’s 20 per cent - and the UUP eclipse at local government level proved to be shortlived (4).

It was the peace process, not the war, which was the undoing of the UUP. Initially it looked as though the UUP’s dominance was assured. The strategic shift in Irish republicanism, towards accepting British rule in Northern Ireland, provided an opportunity for the UUP to establish a new Unionism. The UUP polled well in the 1997 General Election, taking 10 Westminster seats and topping the poll at 32.7 per cent (compared with the DUP’s two seats and 13.6 per cent). The UUP was a key player in the negotiation that led to the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, while the DUP (which took a ‘No concessions to Sinn Fein/IRA’ line) excluded itself from the negotiations and was treated as a pariah by the British government (5).

Fast forward to 2005 and we find that the UUP has been reduced to one Westminster seat with a Northern Ireland-wide vote of under 18 per cent, compared with the DUP’s nine seats and almost 34 per cent of the vote. What happened between 1997 and 2005?

The main thing is that the new politics of the peace process has failed to inspire anyone. This is hardly surprising, given that the peace process has largely proceeded by excluding the public. The 1998 peace agreement was negotiated behind closed doors, and subsequent negotiations moved even further away from the people of Northern Ireland, most recently to Leeds Castle in the south of England. The peace process has also proceeded through sleights of hand, double-talk and other forms of deception (6).

The low voter turnout in the 2005 election is significant in a region where participation has historically been high - people used to joke that the graves emptied on polling day because even the dead turned out to vote. Voter turnout declined in spite of the fact that many of the constituencies were closely fought contests between the parties (7). Indeed, Northern Ireland stuck out as the only region of the UK in which voter turnout was lower in 2005 than in 2001 (-5.5 per cent compared with the UK average of +2 per cent) (8).

The decline in voter turnout indicates that what we are witnessing is not, as many commentators suggested, a vote for the extremes, but a wider disenchantment with politics. The fact that Sinn Fein did not make the significant gains that were expected indicates that the party is running out of steam. It is not really the case that Sinn Fein has come up against the limits of the bedrock of SDLP support. Rather, Sinn Fein has become so established that it is increasingly difficult for it to gather up votes from disgruntled and disaffected nationalists, and in some cases voters are even turning away from the party (9).

The characterisation of the vote for the DUP as a vote for the extreme also fails to acknowledge that, to a large extent, the UUP was the author of its own undoing. As a party it was unable to grasp the opportunities afforded by the new political context. Instead of turning outwards to engage with the electorate, it turned in on itself, most starkly symbolised by the recurrent attempts to remove Trimble as party leader. The DUP vote doesn’t indicate that Protestant voters have hardened in their attitudes towards Catholics, since the DUP position does not differ radically from that of the UUP. The DUP has not ruled out going into government with Sinn Fein; it has only said that it will not do so before IRA disarmament. Many Unionists thought they were voting for this ‘extreme’ position when they voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum on the 1998 peace agreement.

The DUP vote is an expression of discontent, alienation and a feeling of marginalisation among Unionists in Northern Ireland. People voted for the DUP not because their policies differ radically from the UUP’s, but because the DUP have articulated a sense of discontent and dissatisfaction. The DUP’s electoral gains, however, disguise the problems that the party is facing.

In the run-up to the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly elections I argued that the DUP was hoping to gain from Protestant disillusionment with the peace process. I went on to say that theirs was ‘an ultimately self-defeating strategy. What kind of programme can be built on cynicism and mistrust?’ (10). The DUP has, thus far, been able to stave off this problem by not taking the power that it has earned through the ballot box. Instead, the largest single party in Northern Ireland has cast itself in the role of opposition.

This is a fitting comment on politics in Northern Ireland, where the dominant politics is now the politics of opposition. In this sense, the seismic shifts of the 2005 elections do not so much represent the liquidation of the UUP, as the liquidation of political life itself in Northern Ireland.

Chris Gilligan is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Ulster. He is reviews editor for the journal Ethnopolitics, and coeditor of a special issue of the Global Review of Ethnopolitics on the Northern Ireland peace process.

(1) SDLP’s Durkan wins seat in Foyle, BBC News, 6 May 2005

(2) For details of the Northern Ireland election results, see Results: Northern Ireland, BBC News; and Westminster General Election (NI) Thursday 5 May 2005, Conflict Archive on the Internet

(3) See, for example, Bew, Northern Ireland 1921-1996: Political Forces and Social Classes, Gibbon and Patterson, Serif, 1996; A History of the Ulster Unionist Party: Protest, Pragmatism and Pessimism, Graham Walker, Manchester University Press, 2004

(4) For details of all election results in Northern Ireland from 1968 to the present, see Results of Elections Held in Northern Ireland Since 1968, Conflict Archive on the Internet website

(5) ‘The 1998 Agreement: Unionist responses’, Arthur Aughey, A Farewell to Arms?: From ‘Long War’ to Long Peace in Northern Ireland, ed Cox, Gulke and Stephen, Manchester University Press, 2000

(6) ‘Political skills or lying and manipulation?’, Paul Dixon, Political Studies, vol 50, 2002, p725-741

(7) Six of the 18 seats changed hands. A number of the other seats were hotly contested. Sinn Fein made concerted, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to take the constituencies of Foyle and South Down constituencies from the SDLP. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew was defending a slender majority of 53 votes.

(8) Blair wins historic third term - majority of 67, BBC News

(9) It is noticeable, for example, that although Martin McGuinness held the Mid Ulster seat, (a seat he first won in 1997 in what was then considered a major victory for Sinn Fein), he dropped almost 4000 votes between the 2001 election and the 2005 election (from 25,502 to 21,641). See Result: Mid Ulster, BBC News

(10) Assembly of what?, by Chris Gilligan

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