I’ve been following with some interest, but not much engagement, the debate among Northern Ireland’s Unionists about the way forward for Unionism after this month’s election. (Actually, I have engaged a bit; I have chided the DUP and UCUNF for not recognising the degree of their failure, and praised the TUV for doing so.) Those of you who have read my previous analysis (or seen my sleep-deprived speech the day after the election) will be aware of my view that former Unionist voters are not terribly interested in Unionism, and that efforts by Unionist parties to scare them into voting Unionist by waving the flag will continue to prove unsuccessful, whether those efforts are carried out by one party or several.
Part of my evidence for this as a trend developing over the last deccde or more is the geographical distribution of the drop in turnout between the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly election held a few weeks later. The full figures are here, but basically, the six constituencies where the Alliance Party got representatives elected were also the six where the turnout fell most between the two polls (and if you count in the Women’s Coalition, the constituencies where they were successful rank first and seventh on the list ranked by drop in turnout). It seemed to me fairly clear that there is a large chunk of voters who voted for the referendum and who sometimes vote for moderate parties but more often don’t vote at all.
I expanded on this a bit to Ben Lowry of the News Letter the other day, and he kindly used two of my money quotes for one of his articles on the election:
Mr Whyte thinks that unionist voters are not that interested in unionism. "I think the word unionist is going to be increasingly a turn-off for their target voting group."
He adds: "The two seats in which turnout actually increased were the two seats in which moderate women won, North Down and East Belfast, neither of whom had unionist in their title and both of whom won by squeezing the unionist parties."
Mr Whyte notes that in the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, there was a huge turnout of a minimum 80 per cent in all Northern Ireland constituencies, including unionist ones in the east of the Province. But in all elections after that it reverted to a low turnout.
"Protestants will vote in a referendum but they won’t vote for their parties because they don’t like them," he says.
Now, Lee Reynolds (who gained brief fame fifteen years ago when he challenged Jim Molyneux, who was then three and a half times his age, for the leadership of the UUP) has written a blog article which indirectly queries my reading of the situation. The argument is a bit confused, but basically he criticises the Ulster Unionists and the establishment for constructing an image of ‘Garden Centre Prods’ who had voted in the referendum but not in subsequent elections and whose votes should therefore be sought by the UUP or other parties; the failure of the UUP strategy, according to Reynolds, is because there were very few such people. His criticisms are three: 1) the turnout drop was as much working class as middle class; 2) it must have included Catholics who don’t normally vote (as Nationalist candidates in the east of NI tend to lose); 3) it would largely have included voters who don’t really care about the Union.
I disagree with Lee Reynolds on many things, but I think he is correct on the first and third of these points. On the middle one, however, it’s clear to me from perusing the election results cross-checked with demographic data that Catholic voters are entirely prepared to vote Alliance – or even for a moderate Unionist – when there is a chance of making a difference and weakening a more extreme alternative, just as Protestant voters in the right circumstances will vote SDLP to keep the Shinners out. The drop in turnout between May and June 1998 actually has a fairly strong negative correlation with Catholic population share in each constituency.
However, Reynolds’ wider conclusion (if I read him correctly) is that it’s not worth the while of Unionist politicians trying to engage with the ‘100,000 or more’ voters who participated in the referendum and not in the subsequent election. I disagree. First, of course, the number is bigger than he says; it’s more than 140,000. But secondly, taking his three points of criticism, doesn’t that actually point up the need for politicians – not just Unionist politicians – to try and motivate the votes of the working class as well as of the middle class, of Catholics who do not feel represented by Nationalist political parties, and of voters who don’t actually care about the Union? (This is of course precisely the strategy which informed the success of Naomi Long in the election’s closest approach to a Portillo moment.)
One strategy which tried and dismally failed to meet this need was the UUP/Conservative linkup. One of the things which baffled me about it was the appeal of its advocates to some imagined desire for ‘normal politics’ on behalf of Northern Ireland’s voters. Reynolds is rightly scornful of it; I criticised this in 1995, I criticised it last year, and I think the voters have now delivered their own verdict. Quite apart from the failure of the ‘big tent’ concept to attract many voters or candidates who were not already inside the tent, the problem is that by ‘normal politics’, the UCUNF integrationists actually mean ‘English politics’ – not Scottish or Welsh, where Labour and the Nationalists compete for the top spot, with Tories and Lib Dems (now the UK’s ruling coalition partners!) in third and fourth place. Most Northern Irish voters know Scotland at least as well as they know England, and can spot the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘English’, in politics or anything else.
(In two 1967 Doctor Who stories, The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones, the Doctor’s friends, Cockney Ben and Scottish Jamie, mysteriously switch to standard English accents when they are temporarily brainwashed by the baddies. It reflects a cosy assumption that standard English is normal; I remember a college friend of mine from Essex telling me proudly, "I don’ really ‘ave an accent." It’s understandable, if not excusable, that a major cultural state-funded bureaucracy like the BBC had this attitude in the year I was born; I find it baffling that a major non-English political party should still believe it now.)
The other reaction, of ‘Unionist unity’ (ie uniting the two major Unionist parties to form a single political unit) strikes me as equally implausible. The one united Unionist candidate in this month’s election actually failed to get elected. Any such moves will inevitably strengthen the DUP, muzzle dissent within the Unionist tent, and further depress turnout, thus incidentally also strengthening the Alliance Party (which had its best election results in the last 25 years when the two Unionist parties had an electoral pact in 1987). If Unionist strategists want that outcome, in a sense it is fine with me, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Both the integrationist and Unionist unity analyses fail to recognise the nature of Northern Irish politics. Actually, Unionism has won; the Union has been secured, pending a referendum rather than an election, by the 1998 peace deal, the Republic’s constitutional claim has been amended and the IRA have disarmed. Voting Sinn Fein doesn’t actually bring a United Ireland any closer; voting DUP doesn’t do anything to make it a more distant prospect. Unionist voters mostly realise this (even though neither Unionist nor Nationalist politicians are prepared to admit that it is the case). There is therefore no need for a united Unionist party to fight for the Union.
The fact is that Northern Ireland is a divided society; and in most such divided societies (thinking of Belgium, Cyprus, Macedonia, even Bosnia) there will be several political parties representing each side of the division, and maybe even some that try to straddle the divide (easier when, as in Bosnia and NI, everyone speaks more or less the same language). This means that representation of the communities’ day-to-day interests, rather than aspiration to achieving or preventing a distant constitutional change, is the name of the game; indeed, the more salient the constitutional issue in all of those countries, the less stable and ‘normal’ politics becomes. ‘Normal politics’ in Northern Ireland will be precisely when voters judge politicians on their ability to deliver for them in the Assembly, and on their general managerial skills; but it has very little to do with the political party labels that are attached to those politicians. There are signs that this is starting to happen (in, for instance, the Ritchie/Ruane contest in South Down, or the personal rebuke to Peter Robinson from the voters of East Belfast). Smarter activists from all Northern Ireland’s parties should take note and prepare accordingly.