Many political commentators have suggested that Northern Ireland is moving away from the traditional ‘orange and green’ politics and that the divisions between Unionists and Nationalists in politics are becoming less significant. The moderate electoral success of the Alliance Party would support such a judgement, as would the cross-community nature of the Assembly. In examining the claim that the division is becoming less significant, a good place to start would be considering the 2016 election results.
The 2016 elections saw a rise in the amount of MLAs that did not designate themselves as Unionist or Nationalist, including 8 Alliance, 2 Green and 2 People Before Profit. This demonstrates that there has been an increase in the tendency of voters to vote outside the unionist and nationalist blocs. After all, this was the first election where the ‘Good Friday generation’ were able to vote, which suggests that younger voters are less likely to vote for sectarian politics.
Furthermore, the electoral success of the Alliance party, led by David Ford, is further evidence that Northern Irish politics are becoming less divided along Unionist/Nationalist lines. Over the years Alliance has participated in talks with other parties and sought accommodation between the two communities. Significantly, the party has rejected the ‘two communities’ model of society in Northern Ireland, preferring a ‘one community’ approach where everyone in Northern Ireland would share a common allegiance.
Growth has been particularly noticeable since 2006 and the new Assembly after St Andrews. It also coincides with the party getting positions such as Justice Minister – perhaps this new credibility is transforming into votes. The party fared well at the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly election winning seven seats, including a seat won by Anna Lo, the first Chinese person to be elected to a European legislature. The slight increase in their vote between then and now proves that their non-divisive approach is becoming more popular.
It remains to be seen whether it can break through the important 10% barrier and truly challenge the old traditional parties of Orange and Green. The greater degree of co-operation across the political divide in the Assembly and the Executive is further evidence that Northern Irish politics are becoming less divided between Unionists and Nationalists. An early example of the Executive being a cross-community success included an attempt on the part of the Executive to present a collective inter-departmental response to the flooding crisis in June 2007.
The Executive also took part in meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council in July 2007. The meeting was significant due to the participation of the DUP who boycotted the institution during the previous administration. This suggested that the Executive had a hopeful power sharing future. Proof of this could be found in the many examples of successful legislation that has been passed. If legislation is passed then it must have cross community support because the nature of the coalition requires that all major parties agree.
There have been good examples of where legislation has the support of both communities in Northern Ireland. For example, the Taxi Bill that was introduced in 2007/08 by Arlene Foster DUP, who was the Minister for Environment, was supported by MLAs from all sides. It regulated the taxi industry; taxis for example must be registered and licensed. This proves that the Nationalist and Unionist communities are able to work together on issues that are not inherently controversial. Finally, we could consider how the Unionist/Nationalist barriers are being broken down in civil society.
Modern day voters are more concerned with social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and tuition fees rather than the traditional border issues. For example Bernadette Smyth, the outspoken leader of the pro-life lobby group Precious Life, encouraged people to vote DUP despite personally being a committed Nationalist. Even though she disagreed with a lot of the DUP’s policy, she felt that she could not vote Sinn Fein due to their abortion policy. Sinn Fein’s decision to support gay marriage and abortion has alienated many conservative Catholics, and they turn to either Unionist or ‘other’ parties.
This proves that the divisions between Nationalists and Unionist politics are becoming less important to the electorate compared to other issues. On the other it could be argued that the unionist/nationalist division is still central to Northern Ireland politics. The DUP and Sinn Fein remain the largest parties, and although the amount of ‘other’ designated MLAs has increased they still only make up 12 out of a total 108. This is partially due to an apathetic electorate. The turnout was only just above 50% in 2016, and most of those who do not vote are moderates.
There are many issues that still divide Northern Irish politicians along unionist/nationalist lines. This is evident in the controversy that surrounds Irish Language. Sinn Fein believe that they secured an Irish Language act in the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006. However, this has yet to materialise because even if it was introduced it would never generate the cross-community support needed to pass it. Irish language has always been a source of contention between the DUP and Sinn Fein, but since 2007 it has become more problematic.
Gregory Campbell’s ‘curried yoghurt’ comments on the Irish language at the DUP conference have also caused annoyance in Sinn Fein circles with many blaming Robinson for not doing more to discipline him. This also led to the awkward recordings of Gerry Adams and Michelle Gildernew calling Unionists a number of derogatory names. This suggests that the unionist/nationalist divisions are as bad as ever. The use of petition of concern seems to prove that the differences between unionists and nationalists are greater than ever.
All legislation must be passed by OFMdFM and this can lead to legislation getting killed before it is initiated if either of the ‘big two’ do not like it. MLAs have the possibility of raising a Petition of Concern if they believe there is an issue which is a serious concern to their community. To enact this they have to achieve the support of 30 MLAs. In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, with at least 40% of each community present and voting.
It gives each community a veto to prevent decisions or legislation being made which can affect them. A good example of the petition of concern being used is in the rejection of a Sinn Fein motion calling for same sex marriage. A DUP backed petition of concern was used to reject the motion, as the DUP disagrees with Sinn Fein’s equality agenda. The DUP is the only party with enough votes to reject a proposal outright as it has over 30 Assembly seat (38 MLAs). However, it is not just the DUP that use Petition of Concern.
The Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Act 2015 introduces a range of changes to the benefits system. It was initially introduced in 2012 and took years of debate, including Sinn Fein attempting to use a Petition of Concern. Eventually the bill had to be forced through by Westminster – a failure for the Executive and proof that the differences between the two ‘factions’ are greater than ever. The nationalists and unionists disagree over key issues such as parading and flags, and these disagreements lead to ineffective government.
Many people see the parades issue as a microcosm of the Northern Ireland problem itself. Nationalists have been blocking parades on an ongoing basis, and the Unionists responded by tagging the issue of parading to the devolving of policing and justice in 2010. Many feel that Unionist politicians overestimate how much their voters care about parades. Furthermore, disputes over the flag issue that led to serious rioting in Belfast in 2012 remain unresolved. It goes without saying that the Unionists are in favour of flying the Union flag all year round, whereas the Nationalists would prefer it to be taken down.
This gridlock approach fails to deal with the major issues and international mediators must be brought in, such as when Haass came over from America. Haass sat down with all the parties in an intense set of negotiations and discussed issues ranging from flags to parades. It was hoped a blueprint would emerge for future agreement. However, the deadlines were not met nor the negotiations fruitful. Haass has criticised Northern Ireland for not moving on in to a shared future. The failure of the talks led to recriminations and have cast a shadow over the future and called the effectiveness of the DUP and Sinn Fein led executive into question.
This suggests that the unionist/nationalist division is still central to Northern Ireland politics. To conclude, the unionist/nationalist division is becoming less significant in Northern Ireland politics but it certainly hasn’t disappeared altogether. With each passing generation it will likely become less significant, because younger voters have not lived through the troubles and tend to be more concerned with contemporary social issues. For now, however, it seems that the division is here to stay as long as issues such as flags and parading exist.