After the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, party politics in Northern Ireland has mainly focused on power sharing. However, with a changed political landscape and the two large Westminster parties looking more to the nations, perhaps the Northern Irish parties ought to matter more in Westminster.
In post Devolution Northern Ireland focus has primarily been on power sharing between unionists and nationalists. From the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA – the Belfast Agreement) in 1998, the political framework created in its aftermath contributed to the normalisation of the Province in an attempt to move the attention away from violence and disturbances onto political processes. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, an agreement that is a ratification of the GFA, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein (SF) took over power sharing from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) with the DUP as the largest party.
Voting in Northern Ireland is mostly block-oriented, meaning that nationalists most likely vote for either SF or SDLP while unionists vote for unionist alternatives, most notably the DUP or the UUP. Even though we have seen intra-community dynamics, voting behaviour is relatively predictable within the respective blocks. Such predictability has also been traceable in traditional UK general elections, producing sustainable majority governments. However, the 2010 election was far from traditional in the sense that suffrage ended in a Hung Parliament and, subsequently a coalition government. All predictions for the May election point in the same direction, and this time around, particularly the unionist parties, as is to be expected, have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Westminster parties.
The Northern Ireland parties do not exist elsewhere in the UK. Together with the First-Past-the-Post (Simple Majority) election system this has in many ways barred the Northern Irish parties from having much political interaction with other UK parties. Sinn Fein’s long time abstentionism from Westminster obviously created a big gulf between London and parts of Northern Ireland as direct rule – from 1972 until 1998 and partly between 1999 and 2007 – practically disenfranchised an increasing part of the electorate. It should be added that the SDLP has taken its seats since the party was established in 1970, but the democratic deficiency inherent in the political structures have made the unionist road to London considerably shorter than the nationalist one. Identity, culture, religion and politics have made the unionist parties tied to Westminster much more obvious even though they truthfully have not played any significant role in UK politics.
With the changed UK political landscape, unionist parties have a renewed cause for collaborating with Westminster. In the 2010 election, unionist parties returned 9 (DUP 8 and 1 independent who is former UUP Sylvia Hermon) of the 18 seats from Northern Ireland while the nationalists returned 11 (SF 8, not taking seats and SDLP 3) with the cross community Alliance Party (a non sectarian-across-the-divide party) filling the final seat. With recent polls suggesting a new Hung Parliament, the DUP and the UUP agreed on an election pact on 18 March in order to avoid a split in the unionist vote and with the intention of reducing the number of non-unionists being elected. The move was heavily criticised by the SDLP’s Alban Maginnis who claimed that this was «sad and disappointing and amounted to a sectarian carve-up» (www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-31930496). He contended that «progressive politics is about trying to tackle sectarianism, not to embolden sectarianism or to entrench sectarianism» (ibid.). Hence, the SDLP ruled out a similar pact with SF, also because of SF’s policy of abstentionism, meaning that the Irish republicans do not take up their seats at Westminster. The Electoral Reform Society blames the election system claiming that «the idea that parties step down in some seats to maximise their votes in others through an alliance with another party is a direct result of the outdated First Past the Post system…The attraction of electoral pacts for general elections, which themselves become little more than a sectarian carve-up of Westminster seats between the dominant parties, would be undermined if a truly representative electoral system were implemented» (http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/a-sectarian-voting-system).
Regardless, Peter Robinson, the leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland, defended the pact saying it was not undemocratic (www.bbc.com/news/uk-northen-ireland-31950794). With a unionist pact in 4 of the 18 constituencies, the question is more how well the Alliance Party will perform this time around rather than how the unionist-nationalist division will be. Still, the Westminster parties will look to all the nations with increased interest as the 2015 election seems to move towards a Hung Parliament, meaning that all the parties are more alert towards possible coalition constellations than ever before.
In 2010 the UUP and the Conservative Party formed a partnership that would according to the UUP «end the semi-detached political status of Norther Ireland» (McGlynn et all, 2014, 279). But the attempt to take the UPP into the mainstream of British politics «gifted the DUP with an opportunity to present themselves as a strongly defined ethno-regionalist party» (ibid., 278). Electorally, this paid off for the DUP, returning 8 candidates in 2010, while the link-up between the UUP and the Tories ended miserably for the historically more popular unionist party, the UUP, sending no candidates. Moreover, Sylvia Hermon, who was elected from the North Down seat in 2010 as an independent unionist, left the UUP in 2009 due to the Tory link-up. Hence, in retrospect, there seems to be no doubt that placing the UUP in a British political context had devastating electoral effects for the party and that an electoral pact within the Northern Irish unionist context would be a safer plan. Instead of risking intra unionist rivalry with the consequence of being electorally outflanked, a unionist pact within Northern Ireland would ensure a different outcome, despite the dubiousness with regard to the sectarian argument.
An indication of the little importance Northern Irish parties have in Westminster, is the omission from the televised party leadership debate held 2 April. Both Plaid Cymru (PC) from Wales and the Scottish National Party (SNP) from Scotland participated and Northern Ireland was the only nation entirely without representation. With their 8 MPs, the DUP has a larger parliamentary group than four of the parties (Green Party 1, UKIP 2, PC 3 and SNP 6) that took part in the debate. Still the broadcasters decided to leave out all the Northern Irish parties, claiming it would be partial just to include the DUP (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-32001282). Instead there would be a leadership debate with the four largest parties in Northern Ireland (UUP, DUP, SDLP and SF) shown on national TV. Nevertheless, the omission from the national debate shows the limited interest British people presumably take in Northern Irish party politics, with parties not existing outside of the province. Furthermore, the broadcasters’ argument that if the DUP would be allowed participation, then it would be next to impossible to omit other parties, especially with a view of how politics works across the Irish sea.
Wisely enough, the DUP has been tactically prudent in communicating which party they support in case of a Hung Parliament. The DUP is really the only party with any clout in Westminster coalitions negotiations as the other Northern Ireland parties are too small. Nigel Dodds, the DUP Westminster leader, has said that the party would not enter into a government coalition, but support what is good for the UK (http://www.theguardian.com/commenisfree/2015/mar/11/tories-labour-democratic-unionist-support?CMP=share_btn_link). He continued by saying that DUP’s goal as a unionist party «is to see the entire union prosper» (ibid.). Robinson echoed this standpoint by indicating that what the party looked for was a good deal for the union and a good deal for Northern Ireland. «We are open to whichever party I suppose in the first instance constitutionally we would want to go to the party that has won the most seats, but we wouldn’t be adverse to speaking to the party that comes in second place» (www.bbc.com/news/northern-ireland-32106289). Unionist parties have traditionally been supportive of the Tories while SDLP has in some cases lent their support to Labour. However, as the political landscape is in the process of change, and indeed fragmentation, elsewhere in the union, the unionist parties in particular are ready to support the Westminster party that will give Northern Ireland a better deal and at the same the time work for the cohesion of the union. Striking deals with parties remains possible although neither the Conservatives nor Labour should automatically count on their support. But keeping the door ajar is a good strategy both when seen from the Province’s perspective and ditto from the parties’ in Westminster. Northern Irish politics is and remains a special case, even though more integration should be a goal for parts.