Over the last few weeks, I have listened to the Nolan Show most mornings from my desk in Edinburgh. It’s difficult not to notice the marked increase in angry callers lamenting the present political impasse and the impact it is having on public life in Northern Ireland. “But what’s the point?”, I heard one caller say, “Sure we all know that if there was another election, everyone would just vote the same – we deserve what we get.”

I couldn’t help but think that the caller was bang on. It is difficult to envisage a different outcome if there were to be another Assembly election tomorrow. But there must be some circumstances in which there may be a different outcome, surely? Of course there are, because it has happened before in other parts of the world at different points in history.

This begs the question of whether there is a way back for the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, or a space for the Alliance and the Greens to assert themselves firmly in the middle? If so, how might they get there?

Well, it depends on what the rules and object of the game are, of course. At this point, I want to explicitly acknowledge that the impact of political inertia in Northern Ireland is anything but a game – however, it’s a useful metaphor in this instance.

I was travelling across the United States last week, and I couldn’t help but notice that the mood among Democrats is still one of utter disbelief. Last week was the anniversary of the Trump victory, and despite some recent successes in a number of tight Mayoral and Governor races, Democrats are still scratching their heads and looking at each other in the hope that an obvious contender for Trump in 2020 will present themselves.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Those of us who believe that politics is best delivered from the centre ground point to the various populist narratives of the Trump and Brexit campaigns and throw our arms up shouting “foul play.” The truth, however, should make uncomfortable reading for us.

The reality is that our politics of the centre has been characterised by a destructive dichotomy of, on the one-hand, an arrogance that our narrative and ideology is omnipotent and omniscient and anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it is an isolationist and a bigot; and on the other-hand, a complete lack of humility for falling asleep at the wheel as the global economy plunged into recession in 2009. The crux of the problem is that the centre has lost all sense of relevance to the majority of the electorate, given its complete inability to relate to their day-to-day lives and present an emotive and compelling message, supported by a robust policy platform, that addresses the issues of concern to them.

A close mentor of mine is a real Bobby Kennedy fan, and having recently watched Woody Harrelson’s stellar performance as Lyndon Johnson (definitely worth a trip to the cinema), I thought I would read Larry Tye’s RFK autobiography (again, worth a read). As I was reading, it struck me that there isn’t only one way political discourse can go from the ashes.

Look at Jack Kennedy’s first senate victory in Massachusetts over Henry Cabot Lodge Jnr. in November 1952, even with Eisenhower winning the same state by 200,000 votes, and at a time when the country was done with Fair Deal and New Deal Democrats. More recently, despite a blip in popularity presently (labour market reform is never popular in France), Emmanuel Macron’s project in France completely bucked the trend in current Western political discourse.

When our political system crashes and burns, as it has done many times in modern political history, it can pivot towards populism, but there is also an opportunity for the centre to be reborn. Such a rebirth clearly requires a number of ingredients, but a positive message of hope seems to be the common thread along with a charismatic leader to articulate it.

Of course, both the advantage and disadvantage of a hope campaign is that it is supposed to implicitly point to the failings of what went before it without having to actually hammer them home. When people hear a new, fresh message and series of ideas, they immediately notice that message was not there before. The problem comes when political leaders don’t trust this strategy, and start to “stick the boot in” their opponents, which completely undermines the desired tone and entire strategic purpose.

All of this got me thinking about the potential lessons and comparisons for our present pickle in Norn Iron. It is probably worth acknowledging at this point, that we tend not to consider our politics in terms of economic/social centre and extremes, but rather moderate and extreme versions of nationalism and unionism. But, let’s roll with it anyway.

It doesn’t take a genius to look at the last number of election results to observe that things have not been going very well for “the centre” i.e the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Alliance Party has simply never made the breakthrough it thought it might.

This is where the game analogy comes back into play. How could the results have been any other way?

The SDLP and the UUP, and, to a certain extent, the Alliance Party, are playing a game in which they are systematically at a disadvantage because of the rules and objectives. Unlike “normal” elections, an election on the grounds of constitutional preference is a more overt numbers game. It is quite simply about having more numbers than the opposing side. It is not an election about public policy, record in government, or even about the quality of the nationalist and unionist argument itself – the best style of nationalism or unionism is the one that beats the other. Simple.

If you’re voting in an election in which this is the dynamic, even as a moderate the incentive is to vote for the party which is likely to have the most numbers on your particular constitutional preference, which in our case is the DUP and Sinn Fein presently. This is a simple, but yet oddly misunderstood truth.

It looked as though we were close to something of a breakthrough in the last Assembly election, when the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party attempted to present themselves as a joint alternative. However, for various reasons, including lack of time, poor execution of the idea itself, and the overwhelming temptation of both parties to undermine their own strategy by bashing Sinn Fein and the DUP, therefore inadvertently driving voters back to their traditional bases, we didn’t quite get there.

Even Alliance, despite trying to present itself as a fresh alternative, gets caught up in the “for goodness sake, would you look at these lot, it’s just a sectarian headcount” trap which fails to recognise that even the most moderate people in Northern Ireland have some form of constitutional position (and they don’t want to be demonised for it). This has the impact of a campaign that feels distinctly unfresh.

But if you’re continuing to lose the game you’re playing, why not at least try and change the game altogether? After all, what’s the point in continuing to play when the rules and objectives make it almost impossible for you to win?

But, where do we even start in looking for a new game to play, and who do we want to join it? The numbers always provide a good first port of call.

In the last two Assembly elections both the DUP and SF emerged as the two largest parties by a country mile with 55% of first preference votes going to them collectively in 2017, and 53% in 2016. However, this only takes into account those people who actually voted. When those results are considered in the context of the whole electorate, it is only 36% in 2017 and 29% in 2016. I understand that it’s clear that most of the votes from an increased turnout in 2017 went to the two biggest parties but, when you take a step back, the numbers present an obvious opportunity.

Only just over a third of the those registered to vote cast their vote for the DUP and Sinn Fein. This is significant, because even with increased turnout in 2017 nearly 450,000 people were registered to vote, but didn’t. To put that in context, hypothetically if a party were able to secure 10% of those votes, that’s enough for nearly nine additional seats in the Assembly (assuming a quota of around 6,000), and that’s not even mentioning the impact of the transfers.

The key questions. Who are these people? Why didn’t they vote? What is important to them? Crucially, what might make them consider voting? One plausible explanation is that they do not like the rules of the game we are all currently playing. But they might like a different one? What would happen if a party decided to find out, in detail, what these people really care about, and talk about those issues, a lot.

This is where the parties in the “centre” will need to be brave. There will always be a significant minority of people who will vote on constitutional preference alone. Whilst I’m not suggesting their votes should be given up on, they are probably not up for grabs in the short term and so it’s not unreasonable to suggest a strategy that doesn’t focus on them given that there is potentially a bigger prize.

For the UUP and the SDLP, this may involve having to explicitly acknowledge that whilst they are still working towards a particular constitutional end, there are more important things that should come first i.e. the economy, health, education, infrastructure etc. In this sense, the Good Friday Agreement provides them with the ultimate cover. The principle of consent is such that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is settled until there is credible evidence that suggests a shift in public opinion. This allows the issue to be made secondary for the purposes of attracting the new audience I refer to above.

It might also require a step change in the tone and language within which nationalism and unionism talk about each other. I don’t know about you, but it seems to have worsened of late? Imagine the freshness of a message of compassion rather than antagonism between unionists and nationalists. Language of trust, rather than automatic cynicism and scepticism.

The common thread of revivals of the centre in political history is a political leader and a political party willing to be brave, abandon a failing strategy in a narrative in which they cannot compete, present a message that is bold, positive and relevant to the lives of the people they want to vote for them and have the discipline to stick to it even when it may seem expedient not to do so.

The numbers appear to suggest there could be a reward for the party brave enough to recognise that they will continue to struggle to compete in this current game, so why not try and change it?

  • Kev Hughes

    Gareth, not a bad piece.

    I would note a few things that you have either omitted or perhaps not picked up on, together with my own observations:

    1. I feel you are somewhat naïve (poor choice of word) in your implied assertion that those who do not vote would automatically be those who disagree with either the DUP or SF. If we take places such as West Belfast, it could be for the fact that their vote carries less weight and they feel that (in this instance) SF will automatically win.

    2. Are we now defining the UUP as part of the centre? I would ask that you look at their pronouncements over the past year, because they appear to have hardened and are nearly indistinguishable from that of the DUP.

    3. Our political parties of the centre do not appear to have a clue what they stand for. I perused the UUP’s site today and that was perhaps the most depressing thing I have read in ages. There is little there of trying to get people to buy into your message and move things along; rather it was more a case of what they are against.

    4. I would liken these parties to more conventional support groups rather than political parties and that is not meant as an insult or slight against them. In this day and age, people are not idiots (in the main), they can spot someone hurling from the ditch where you do not believe them and that they are merely playing politics. We have parties of the centre calling for the return of Stormont, yet they were all in unison asking to bring it down in December of last year; what has changed since that makes them want to get back there so quick?

    I agree, they need to change the game, but perhaps they could change their players too.

  • the Moor

    It is a persistent fallacy of orthodox commentary on Northern Ireland (NI) to lament the fragility of a fabled ‘centre ground’. Fairly typical of the genre, Gareth Brown’s critique of the SDLP’s plight misrecognises the true basis of political affiliation and voting intentions in NI. By now it is surely stating-the-bleeding-obvious to note that the politics of NI are not marked out along socioeconomic lines (i.e., according to 20C liberal democratic norms) but by the ethno-particularist identifications of prodtaigery given to us by the unresolved legacies of early-modern plantation, religious sectarianism, partition and political violence. As a result of the ‘peace process’ (in which John Hume was the pivotal peacemaker), the republican (‘unfinished revolution’) argument over Ireland’s colonial past has been settled, on an interim basis, by the zero-sum equation of compulsory power sharing. Put another way, the peculiar character of NI’s polity is defined by absence of liberal democratic, left-right parameters. Correspondingly, liberal concepts of ‘middle’, ‘centrism’ and ‘consensus’ are categorically unsuited to apply to what is a demonstrably dissensual context: which is to say, misdiagnosis routinely occurs due to illogical reliance on liberal premises which thus reproduce a ‘bias against understanding’ the real underlying nature of the place.

    NI has two electorates not one. in these circumstances, the political centre is a misnomer. So too is the accompanying premise of liberal argument that ‘moderate’ is a uniquely centrist value (which within this prevailing frame translates as meaning: subject to liberal reason and being bestowed with reasonableness – i.e., as vested exponents of conventional wisdom and good sense and as such natural guardians against unsavoury ‘extremes’). Within both unionist and nationalists communities the ‘normal’ primary definer of socioeconomic status certainly plays a part, affecting policy, moderating positions, up to a point. ‘Middling’ opinion exists for sure, but not in the middle, as typically understood (by liberal opinion). For while neither side of the post–troubles divide (partitionism versus antipartitionism) is entirely immune to the contemporary concerns of British party political predispositions, neither local bloc is governed by Westminster’s moral or ideological compass.

    Overwhelmingly partitionist voters vote for partitionist parties (DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, Alliance – the last of these, to be clear, is a liberal unionist party of O’Neillite hue) and antipartitionist electors vote overwhelmingly for antipartitionist parties (SF, SDLP, PBP – the last of these a, perhaps temporary, working class alternative in west Belfast in Derry to SF’s increasing pan-class hegemony among nationalist voters). That the level and percentage of cross-sectarian voting is so exceptionally small in NI elections is proof of the primacy of the sectarian divide as too is the absence of left–right pendular swings or any evidence whatsoever of the mythic ‘floating’ voter. What exists in NI at the edges of the institutionalised binarism of orange and green is a ‘narrow margin’ of ‘third’ party representation which at present dominated by the Greens whose quietism on the constitution permits them to garner socially progressive middle class votes (and even a small number of working class ones) on a contingent asectarian basis – a miscellaneous ‘other’ produced as a feature of the balanced sectarianism of Good Friday structures.

    Viewed from from European Left, the SDLP is a not untypical party of christian democrats. Filial relation to the British Labour Party, notwithstanding, as the faultline on abortion and segregated educaion shows, the SDLP is a northern Irish catholic-nationalist party whose key intra-nationalist opposition, as they see it themselves, is Sinn Fein. And that of course is their main problem and the reason for their decline, which can be dated to 1982 when the process of the constitutionalising Sinn Fein began and especially since 1999, when middle class catholic electors who’d hitherto demurred from supporting SF began migrating to the leading Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein. In the mid-1980s the SDLP enjoyed two-thirds of the catholic electorate. In last year’s elections their share in relation to SF had declind to one-third. The reason for this is surely fairly obvious. Much as Ulster unionism has on occasion shown itself capable, in order to maximise sectarian representation, of constructing pre-electoral pacts, nationalist electors aspire to pan-nationalist accommodation. Against this wish, under the current ladership, the SDLP maintains hubristic belief in a self-appointed mission as a moderating influence as well as, demonstrating cognitive dissonance instanced by the pointless pact with the UUP, appearing to have convinced themselves that they can somehow create centre ground through make-believe moral exhortation (in virtuous reflection presumably of their senior role (as they see it) in detoxifying republicanism). This deluded liberal narrative clearly isn’t shared in the nationalist community at large, including by an all-the-while increasing proportion of the middle class catholic electors. Whatever the SDLP might wish to be true, SF are not on probabtion with catholic voters and it is the SDLP through their belligerent posture towards SF who reproduce a disunited nationalist bloc (and by the way giving succour to Ulster unionism).

    The real game for the SDLP, if they are to survive and play a useful part in future, is: (1) to accede to the ontological given of the divided local polity and to behave accordingly in the interests of catholic nationalist electors they pretend to represent, speaking and acting like a liberal nationalist party for whol the ending of partition is a primary objective (2) in recognition of realpolitik, to work with SF and others in civil society in the national conversation needed now to create momentum towards the ‘agreed Ireland’ John Hume desired. If instead, the SDLP elect to stay with a divisive, defacto weesix strategy, or sign-up with FF in pursuance of 26 county objectives, they cannot be surprised if in due course punished further by an electorate angry with the resurgent triumphalism of the DUP and the negligence of Tory misrule: If they’d put their hurt feelings aside, the SDLP could yet contribute in the gathering force for all-island, post-brexit accommodation.