The Colour of the Fringe: What are/were the non-confessional parties?

We’re here today to talk mainly about smaller parties within Northern Ireland’s political system. As Jenny has noted in her introductory paper, very little work has been done on this topic – and those small parties which have attracted the attention of journalists or researchers have tended not to be the ones we are interested in here, ie those which can be linked to the centre ground politically, or the “non-confessional” parties.

Some may question the value of even bothering to look at this topic. I don’t. Some of you will have known my father, and most of you will have read his books: when I was a teenager he would occasionally catch me poring over election results (I suppose that gives some idea of what kind of teenager I was), and he would always encourage me to pay attention to the smaller parties’ results as well as the bigger ones. I don’t know if it was a phrase of his own coining, but he used to say that “you can tell a lot about the carpet by the make-up of the fringe”. Perhaps we’ll be testing that assertion today.

Northern Irish politics currently appears to be pretty rigidly divided. It is a five-party system, with two or three different political spaces. The DUP and UUP together dominate the Unionist political space, the SDLP and Sinn Fein together dominate Nationalist political space, and there is a more difficult to define centre ground, occupied by the Alliance Party and others.

But it is easily forgotten just how recent this constellation is. I thought it would be worth exploring just for a moment the historical roots of the Northern Irish political system. The turning points, in terms of political party development, don’t always happen where you might expect, and I hope I’m offering a slightly new way of thinking about it when I suggest that we should consider the present political party structures of Northern Ireland as essentially dating from 1982.

For a start, pre-1969 Northern Ireland had a slightly more colourful political spectrum than it is sometimes given credit for. True, the Unionist party dominated political life, and never won fewer than 33 seats out of the 53 in the Stormont House of Commons. True, the second largest party was the Nationalist party, winning between 6 and 11 seats at each election – oddly enough, the low point of 6 seats was hit only twice, in the first devolved election in 1921 and in the last one in 1969.

But within the gap between the two, and around the edges, there was room for manoeuvre. This was particularly so in Belfast, where no Nationalist Party candidate won a contested election after 1938, and no Nationalist Party candidate even stood after 1945. In particular, the Northern Ireland Labour Party established itself in several Belfast seats as the only alternative to the Unionist party, and the election results do indicate actual shifts of votes from Unionist to Labour, and then of course back again. The Belfast Dock seat is particularly interesting as it alternated between Unionist to some variety of Labour, be that the NILP, the Irish Labour Party, or Gerry Fitt at almost every election.

Come the crisis of 1969, the party system, such as it was, collapsed, and took ten elections over the next thirteen years before it again achieved a form of stability. I’ll talk about the overall political picture in a moment, but first I think it’s important to note that the 1969 Stormont election saw the first real attempts to conceptualise what we would now call cross-community voting.

On the Unionist side, supporters of pro-O’Neill candidates, particularly those independent candidates backed by the New Ulster Movement, claimed that they were enlisting the support of moderate Catholics as well as moderate Protestants. The electoral evidence would seem to bear this out: the total share of votes cast in the election for Unionist candidates of all varieties comes to almost two thirds – before you take into account that several Unionists were elected unopposed. Then there is another 9% or so for the NILP and the Ulster Liberal Party. So, given that Paul Compton estimates the Catholic share of the population in 1971 as being 36.8%, and that turnout was fairly even across Northern Ireland, there must have been a fairly substantial chunk of the ‘Catholic’ vote cast for Labour, Liberals or even the least worst Unionist option.

At the same time, from the other side, the three civil rights leaders who were elected to Stormont as independents in 1969 all claimed at the time to have had some Protestant support, and in the case of Ivan Cooper he presumably at least voted for himself. So although the Northern Ireland political scene is often stereotyped as one where there is a one-to-one mapping between a party’s perceived confessional affiliation and its voter base, there are occasional elections when this is not so, and 1969 was one of them.

The next thirteen and a half years saw ten full elections and a number of important by-elections as well. They saw the collapse and recovery of the UUP vote. They saw the appearance and disappearance of Vanguard, the UUUP, the UPNI, and the Irish Independence Party. They saw the Protestant Unionist Party become the DUP, which gradually consolidated its position as the only credible force on the more hard-line side of Unionism, to the point where in the 1979 European and 1981 local elections the party actually outpolled the UUP. They saw the foundation of the SDLP, consolidating the three independents elected in 1969, and most of the smaller Nationalist-leaning groups that had existed before then; and then its shedding of its less Nationalist and more socialist founder members, Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin. They saw the foundation of the Alliance Party, which more or less absorbed the voters (though not the personnel) of the NILP, with perhaps a more overtly Catholic tinge to its presentation than the NILP had ever dared have.

And finally, perhaps most importantly, those years saw the engagement of the Republican movement with electoral politics, starting with Bernadette McAliskey’s candidacy in the 1979 European election, and dramatically sealed with Bobby Sands’ 1981 by-election victory in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. When Sinn Fein contested the 1982 Assembly elections, they brought in a whole section of the electorate that had not been regular voters before. Although they won only five seats, they had several near misses, and got over 10% of the vote – more than most observers had anticipated.

The 1982 Assembly election results gave the SDLP and Sinn Fein a combined dominance of the Nationalist vote, which they have never lost. They confirmed also that the DUP and UUP were the major players on the Unionist side, disturbed only by a succession of North Down mavericks and the very small Loyalist parties based in urban areas. They also showed an Alliance party dominance of the centre ground.

If you look at the 2003 Assembly election results, twenty years later, you’ll see all of those characteristics repeated again. There are some important differences, of course. Notably, the total Nationalist vote has increased from less than 30% to over 40%; the DUP and Sinn Fein have overtaken the UUP and SDLP respectively; and the centre parties have lost almost half their vote from 1982, down from 12.7% to 7%. But the two results tables are recognisably the same political system, in a way that neither can be compared to the 1969 election result.

So, having established 1982 as a baseline



What is a non-confessional party?






What future for non-confessional parties?

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