Back in April 2007, one of my first posts on South Belfast Diary was ‘‘Normalising’ politics in Northern Ireland?’, in which I speculated about the choices that might be available to the electorate in 2012. With our MLAs back at work, and with a feeling of change in the air, it seems like a good time to have another look at this.
As I said then, and still believe, we have no way of knowing how our political system might evolve:
On the one hand, normal politics in NI is what we’ve got at the moment: it’s normal for us, and it has evolved in the way it has in response to local conditions. On the other hand, if party political options do change in the next five years or so, there’s no particular reason to assume that the new pattern will be the same as anywhere else, because our society isn’t.
So what are the trends today, and where might they leave us in 2012?
The bonkers wing of unionism is alive and well in the new Traditional Unionist Voice (motto: don’t work with anyone else, anytime, anywhere) and in the behaviour of some DUP MLAs – homophobia, creationism, global warming denial, we’ve seen them all. But in general the DUP are ‘still here, still the same’, as I said in 2007. Peter Robinson’s remarks on voluntary coalition were an interesting and successful attempt at agenda-setting, and many DUP politicians are competent and impressive.
Rather than go for being the unionist party with the liberal social agenda, which would have filled an electoral niche and probably suited many of their members, the UUP formed a ‘link’ with the British Conservative party. In 2007 I predicted a full merger, which I suppose may still come about. The ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists’ retained the a seat in the European elections, but it remains to be seen whether the new arrangement can compensate for the lacklustre performance of local representatives.
The PUP have continued to be squeezed out of a meaningful role. Despite recent moves towards loyalist decommissioning, the ‘progressive loyalism’ project seems to have stalled. Most PUP members would probably be happy in a fully functioning Labour Party, if we had one.
The ‘middle ground’
As Northern Ireland settles down into an uneasy peace, the key question for Alliance and the Greens must be why they seem unable to attract larger numbers of voters away from traditional allegiances. A couple of years ago, I thought Alliance might try to link up more closely with the British Liberal Democrats - I didn't actually realise that they already have links with the LibDems (and, indeed, that there's a branch of the LibDems here in NI). The idea of a link with Fine Gael was way off beam, though. In terms of what they actually do, Alliance just keep on doing it in the hope that they might pick up a few more votes eventually.
The Greens, with their connections both to the South and to the British jurisdictions, did much better than last time in the European elections, but again they aren’t making a strong enough breakthrough at all levels of our politics. So the voting options here in the middle will remain the same in 2012 – unless the defection of Ian Parsley is a sign that the Greens and Alliance, rather than the sectarian parties, would become weaker if parties from Britain and the Republic decided to move into electoral politics in NI.
Which brings us to the two Labour parties. A couple of years ago, I was hopeful that Labour candidates would by now be preparing to contest the next council elections. But Irish Labour is out of the picture and British Labour is also trying to fudge the issue. The root of the problem is that both Dublin and London are blocking alternatives because they fail to understand why the SDLP are not a suitable democratic socialist party for the whole electorate. I don’t see that changing by 2012.
In 2007 I was sure that the SDLP would merge with Fianna Fáil. But the Celtic Tiger died, Brian Cowen lost interest, and it looked as if the SDLP had turned more towards Irish Labour. Then, surprisingly, a fortnight ago, Fianna Fáil met in the North again, although they have made it clear they don’t intend to contest elections or seek a formal connection with the SDLP. So the SDLP continues to survive as a separate party, despite all the speculation of the past few years. They have a fine collection of policies on social issues, which they consistently fail to put across due to the poor presentation skills of their politicians and, it appears, some muddled briefing. But if you really want to vote for them, it looks like you’ll still be able to in 2012.
There’s very little to say about Sinn Féin. They’ve been around for a long time and aren’t going away any time soon. There are tensions in the South, with their culchie members keen for them to become a Fianna Fáil Mark 2, but up here they remain successful electorally. They even win when running an egregious election campaign for an institution they don’t believe in.
So there you have it. I could have added in a few far left parties; it’s important to note the absence of the far right, despite persistent rumours of their attempts to start up here; and also we should be aware of the perhaps surprisingly low number of independent candidates. Formal political links with parties from other jurisdictions remain rare, and we still only have one all-Ireland party.
In April 2007, the Assembly and Executive were just about to reconvene. House prices were high, unemployment comparatively low, and most of us had never heard of Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or a young senator called Barack Obama. The world has changed considerably since then, and we have more change coming in the shape of the Cameron government and continuing severe economic problems in the Republic. But NI carries on pretty much regardless. It will be interesting to see how our politicians cope with the challenges of the next few years, and, indeed, whether the Executive can survive them.