Northern Ireland election: a done deal

The election campaign in Northern Ireland is being described as a 'hot contest' - but it is not so much nationalist v Unionist, as nationalist v nationalist and Unionist v Unionist.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The election campaign in England, Scotland and Wales may be a damp squib – but in Northern Ireland the battle for votes is being described as the ‘bitterest’ and ‘most hotly contested’ in 20 years.

But the ‘hot contest’ is not so much nationalist v Unionist, as it is nationalist v nationalist and Unionist v Unionist. As the Irish Times put it: ‘The battle this time is within communities, not between communities.’ (1)

According to one report, Northern Ireland’s two main nationalist parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein, ‘will fight one of the bitterest electoral battles in their histories for the soul of northern nationalism’ (2). While on the other side, ‘the two main Unionist parties are going for each other’s jugulars with a verbal vitriol previously reserved for their republican rivals’ (3).

There is certainly a war of words between the nationalist parties. Earlier this year Sinn Fein and the SDLP met to discuss an ‘electoral pact’, which Sinn Fein hoped would deliver 11 out of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats into nationalist hands. But the proposed pact floundered when the SDLP accused Sinn Fein of ‘political opportunism’. Now the parties have been left to slug it out – particularly in West Tyrone, where both the SDLP’s Brid Rodgers and Sinn Fein’s vice-president Pat Doherty are battling to win the seat from Ulster Unionist Willie Thompson, whose majority is a slim 1161.

The ‘inter-Unionist’ clash, as the BBC describes it (4), is even more bitter. ‘No unity among Unionists in battle for province’ says one headline (5), as David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) clash over the Good Friday Agreement and whether Sinn Fein should be allowed to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. A Belfast Telegraph opinion poll showed that support for the UUP has fallen from 33 percent in 1997 to 25 percent today (6) – not helped by the emergence of ‘anti-Agreement’ parties like the minority Northern Ireland Unionist Party (7).

So what has changed to make Northern Ireland’s election campaign a battle within communities rather than between them?

In the past, general elections in Northern Ireland were known for their big clashes between nationalists and Unionists – 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 between Northern Ireland and Britain. Of course, even in these election campaigns there was rivalry within each camp – with Sinn Fein, since 1983 when it first stood in a general election, going for the working-class nationalist vote and accusing the middle-class SDLP of ‘selling out’ to Britain, and the DUP lambasting the UUP for being ‘too soft’ in its defence of the Union. But general elections took place within a nationalist v Unionist framework, where the big issue was always whether Northern Ireland was Irish or British.

Now all that has changed. The national question is off the agenda, and all the main parties – apart from Ian Paisley’s increasingly cranky DUP – accept that the Good Friday Agreement is the only way forward. Tony Blair has already pencilled in a meeting with the Northern Ireland parties after the election to discuss implementing the Agreement. So the ‘hot contest’ in the election is not the fundamental question of who should rule Northern Ireland, but the rather less exciting one of who should run Northern Ireland – meaning the parties can forget ‘national animosities’ and focus on winning more influence in what has already been decided will be the post-election set-up.

The move from the big, national question to what the SDLP calls ‘everyday politics’ is reflected in the parties’ campaigning issues so far. Take West Belfast, where Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was MP for the past four years and is likely to be re-elected. According to Adams, the ‘biggest election issue’ in West Belfast is ‘antisocial behaviour’: petty crime, joyriding and burglaries. ‘It is the only thing that is going to cost Sinn Fein votes’, says Adams, ‘because people feel we are not doing enough’. And according to West Belfast’s newspaper The Andersontown News, ‘Our politicians, who are currently knocking on doors on the campaign trail, will be left in no doubt that it is this issue more than any other which is exercising the minds of the voters in nationalist areas’ (8).

Similarly, in the SDLP v Sinn Fein contest that is West Tyrone, the issues are no longer nationalist ones. As the SDLP’s Brid Rodgers recounted, one potential voter told her: ‘I’ll vote SDLP or Sinn Fein, but it won’t be so much what they can do on flags or policing but what they can do on health and childcare.’ Or as another voter put it: ‘I could go for either Rodgers or Doherty, they both seem nice, but there’s still poverty where I live. I would honestly vote for the party that can get me a downstairs toilet.’ When the national question is no longer up for discussion, the distinction between Sinn Fein and the SDLP comes down to who will do the most to tackle crime and poverty.

Meanwhile, Unionists are fighting solely over the question of the Good Friday Agreement. The Ulster Unionists are doing all they can to prove their ‘pro-Agreement credentials’, while the Democratic Unionists have turned themselves into pariah number one by being the only main party to oppose the Agreement, describing it as a ‘surrender to republicans’. As the DUP goes off the rails completely (witness Paisley’s recent rant against the ‘sins of line dancing’), the UUP is keen to stake its claim in Northern Ireland’s future by appearing moderate and definitely pro-Agreement.

The nationalist v Unionist conflict of the past has been replaced by nationalist v nationalist and Unionist v Unionist conflicts today – where each party is fighting for its part in what is an already predetermined ‘New Northern Ireland’, as laid out in 1998’s Good Friday Agreement.

One journalist described it as ‘refreshing’ that Northern Ireland’s election campaign is about ‘bread and butter issues’ instead of age-old animosities (9). It is true that there is no future for the people of Northern Ireland in either old-style nationalism or dead-end Unionism. But while the current election campaign might be a ‘hot contest’ for the political parties and their leaders, it doesn’t offer much choice to the electorate.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Good Friday Agreement: a peace of nothing, by Brendan O’Neill

Spinning the peace deal, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Irish Times, 21 May 2001

(2) Guardian, 21 May 2001

(3) Guardian, 22 May 2001

(4) Key seats will test Agreement support, BBC Online, 23 May 2001

(5) Guardian, 22 May 2001

(6) First Northern Ireland poll, BBC Online, 23 May 2001

(7) NIUP manifesto launch, BBC Online, 23 May 2001

(8) The Andersontown News, May 2001

(9) Guardian, 21 May 2001

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Topics Politics


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