Assembly of what?

Northern Ireland's elections expose the political void.

As Northern Ireland’s voters go to the polls to elect members to a new Assembly, it is impossible to tell what the outcome will be.

A Belfast Telegraph poll carried out in early November 2003 suggested that David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) are likely to win the most votes. The UUP has traditionally been the largest party that supports Northern Ireland’s Union with Britain, while the SDLP has traditionally been the largest nationalist party, arguing for the reunification of Ireland through consent.

But analysts point out that such polls tend to underestimate the vote for Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (1). Since the peace process took off in the mid-1990s, Sinn Fein has increased its share of the vote at the expense of its nationalist rivals in the SDLP. Having abandoned its claim to be the ‘legitimate government of Ireland’, with the right to use force to get British troops off Irish territory, Sinn Fein has increased its share of the nationalist vote.

And since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the DUP - the only major party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement - has tended to increase its vote share at the UUP’s expense. So while the UUP and SDLP remain the largest parties in Northern Irish politics, the gap is narrowing.

The fact that the two main nationalist parties and the two main Unionist parties can appear neck-and-neck, and the election outcome so unpredictable, highlights the impact that the peace process has had on Northern Irish politics. The peace process has depoliticised Northern Ireland’s tensions, rather than resolving them, transforming the conflict from a political one over sovereignty and the right to rule into a cultural contest for recognition and respect.

In the past, elections in Northern Ireland took place within a nationalist/Unionist framework - where one side voted nationalist to express its desire for a united Ireland, while the other side voted Unionist because it wanted to keep the link with Britain. Today, when the national question is off the agenda, all of that has changed. The issue in elections today is not who should rule Northern Ireland, but rather who should run it - and run it along lines already set down in the Good Friday Agreement. When big issues are off limits, and when all the parties (apart from the cranky DUP) accept that the Agreement is the only way forward, voting patterns become less predictable and votes themselves can become interchangeable between the fairly indistinct parties.

The traditionally non-sectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has suffered the biggest electoral losses since the peace process began. This has partly been of Alliance’s own making - for example, Alliance candidates stood aside in some constituencies during the 2001 general election in order to support pro-Agreement UUP candidates. Also, the ‘non-sectarian’ space that Alliance inhabited has been encroached upon by the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) - and Alliance has suffered as a consequence of the sectarian political structures institutionalised through the Good Friday Agreement (2).

A number of other factors have contributed to the uncertainty about the likely results of today’s polls. Many have failed to register to vote and so are automatically disqualified from doing so; one estimate says that 100,000 people have not registered - more voters than there are in any single constituency in Northern Ireland (3). Also, the proportional representation system used in the Assembly elections means that votes do not translate directly into seats. In 1998, the SDLP received more first-preference votes than any other party; yet the UUP gained four more Assembly seats than the SDLP (4).

Less than a third of Assembly seats are directly elected from first-preference votes. Around half the seats come from fairly predictable vote transfers (within parties and within ‘sectarian’ blocs); up to a third are even more difficult to predict because they are marginal and rely on transfers from lower-preference votes. This requires the parties to make tactical choices - which can sometimes backfire. For example, in the Foyle constituency, the SDLP is standing four candidates, but it is unlikely that it will gain four seats. Having four candidates could work to the SDLP’s advantage and allow it to take three seats (as it did last time around), if there is a high level of ‘in-house’ vote transferring. But the fact that John Hume is not standing, and that an SDLP ‘dissident’ is standing against SDLP candidates, means the SDLP might not keep a hold of its three seats.

These technical issues will impact on the outcome of the election - but the biggest problem is political, not technical. Many people in Northern Ireland find politics to be a big turn-off. Some commentators have referred to ‘voter apathy’ - but in fact, many people are still interested in political issues and debate, and would like to have some influence on the political process. The problem is that most of us feel that we are not able to exercise any influence (5).

It will be interesting to see if this disillusionment translates into votes for ‘wild card’ candidates. Kieran Deeny is standing in West Tyrone on a platform of opposition to closure of the main hospital in the constituency. In Foyle independent candidate Eamonn McCann, journalist, trade union activist and veteran civil rights campaigner, has been dismissed by many as a no-hoper. In the 1980s and 1990s that might have been the case - but today he may pick up enough votes from disillusioned voters to scrape into sixth place.

I have been asking students and friends whether and why they will be voting. Younger students, for whom this is the first opportunity to cast a vote, seem keen to exercise their democratic right. Many of them, however, are not sure who they are going to vote for. More seasoned voters tend to sigh and say: ‘If you don’t vote you can’t complain about the outcome.’ Both of these responses suggest a desire to influence the political process, but they say little about the specifics of the election.

In all of the commentary on the election to date I have not heard anyone ask: ‘What is the election for?’ It is obviously an election to an Assembly, but what Assembly? The election was originally called as part of a package that was supposed to re-establish the Assembly. If this package did not work, how are the elections going to magically re-establish the Assembly? If the Assembly does reconvene, how long will it last for this time?

All such questions point to a bigger problem - the privatisation of politics. Politics in Northern Ireland has become a private matter to be dealt with by political experts behind closed doors. Consider the negotiations that led to the announcement of the election: only David Trimble and a few Sinn Fein leaders knew what had been agreed; the other pro-Agreement parties were excluded from the discussions. Even some of the UUP’s and Sinn Fein’s elected representatives were kept out of the loop.

Also, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement have largely been developed and pushed by outside forces - by officials in London, Dublin and even Washington, rather than by political parties (much less their voters) in Northern Ireland. In this climate, it is hardly surprising that many people are turned off from politics. Cynicism becomes an understandable response, providing protection from disappointment in the present; unfortunately, it does not provide good grounds on which to build the future (6).

The DUP is hoping to gain from this disillusionment - and it may well do so. But it is an ultimately self-defeating strategy. What kind of programme can be built on cynicism and mistrust? Many of those who will vote for the DUP today will do so because they expect the party to overturn the Agreement. But a survey carried out by Colin Irwin of Queen’s University Belfast indicates that a significant proportion of DUP voters is are in favour of the Agreement. If the DUP attempts to wreck the Agreement, it is likely to alienate such supporters (7).

Government in Northern Ireland has become a technocratic matter. There is one thing that politicians could do to inject life back into politics - make the constitutional future of Northern Ireland a political issue again. Nationalist parties still say that they want a united Ireland, but they have not made the case for it, or attempted to convince the Protestant population and the quarter of the Catholic population who regularly say they would prefer to remain in the United Kingdom. Similarly, Unionists have not made the case for the Union; why should the Catholic population want to maintain ties with Britain?

At present, political debate is technocratic and uninspiring. It might inspire the dullest accountants, but it does not enthuse the majority of Northern Irish society. No party provides a vision for the future. All that they are currently offering is a continuation of the present. More peace process, more peace process, more peace process….

Chris Gilligan is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Ulster. He has written extensively on Irish politics and culture. He recently co-edited (with Professor Jonathan Tonge, University of Salford) a special issue of the journal Global Review of Ethnopolitics. He will be covering the Northern Ireland Assembly election results for BBC Radio Foyle on Thursday 27th of November.

(1) Exclusive opinion poll, Belfast Telegraph, 23 November 2003

(2) See Victims of their own success? Post-agreement dilemmas of political moderates in Northern Ireland (.pdf 118 KB), Jonathan Tonge, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, vol 3, no 1, September 2003, on the problems that have beset the ‘moderate’ parties since the peace process developed

(3) Increase in NI polling booths, BBC News, 31 October 2003

(4) Re: NI Assembly election calculations, Jim Riley, ARK, 2 July 2000

(5) Electorate more ‘cynical’, BBC News, 20 November 2003

(6) See Constant crisis/permanent process: diminished agency and weak structures in the Northern Ireland peace process (.pdf 94.3 KB), Chris Gilligan, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, vol 3, no 1, September 2003, on diminished agency and the inherent instability of the peace process

(7) Devolution and the state of the Northern Ireland peace process (.pdf 146 KB), Colin Irwin, Global Review of Ethnopolitics, vol 2, no 3-4, March/June 2003

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