Gerry Adams MP MLA and Bairbre De Bruin MEP Sinn Fein
I am not a native nor an expert on Northern Ireland politics, but as there appears to be no one else of that ilk around here (with the possible exception of Eurocentric) I will offer my take on the Northern Ireland European Parliament Elections which take place today.
Politics in Northern Ireland has always been primarily about tribal identity. You are either a Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist or a Catholic/Nationalist/Republican with the latter ends of those labels being at the extreme end of the spectrum.
Of course this isn’t an entirely fair description of the entire spectrum. The Alliance Party has tried valiantly to fly the flag for (largely middle class) non-sectarian politics. The Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP), previously led by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, John Hume, has also tried hard to break the sectarian divide and appeal to more progressively minded voters on both sides of the divide - with limited success.
There were also the Peace People, the Women’s Coalition, the Greens, and a number of smaller parties and individuals who tried to create a normal political space in a state that was founded explicitly in order to maintain a majority for one “community” over another.
But as Winston Churchill wrote after the first World War:
“Every institution in the world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed… But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”
Reginald Maudling a former British Home Secretary is reputed to have said as he sank into his airline seat after a visit to try and pacify the warring tribes.
“FOR GOD’S sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.”
All of which is a long way of saying that the world may have changed, this election is for a European Parliament dedicated to ending war in Europe, but the primary factor motivating voters to vote is still the tribal identity of the candidates.
Yes, the Peace Process has changed a lot, and there is now a more or less functional administration comprising both the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - formerly lead by Ian Paisley - and Sinn Fein, the Republican wing of nationalist or Republican voters. But on the ground sectarianism still reigns - as witnessed recently by a large loyalist mob which invaded a nationalist housing estate and beat to death a nationalist community worker out looking for his son. Why? Scottish football Club Glasgow Rangers, representing the Protestant side of Glasgow, had just won the Scottish football league at the expense of Glasgow Celtic - the “Catholic” supported Club.
Of course, as in any polity, there are many who say “a plague on both their houses”; who keep their heads down and get on with their daily lives as best they can. But if they don’t vote or support non-sectarian initiatives they also don’t have much impact on the conduct of political life.
Thus we have Diane Dodds (DUP) successor to Ian Paisley and favoured to head the poll in the European Elections - challenged from her right - by sitting MEP Jim McAlister (Traditional Unionist Party) - who fell out with the DUP because it dared to enter a power-sharing administration with Sinn Fein.
Then we have sitting MEP Jim Nicholson of the Unionist Party who have just entered into a pact with the British Conservatives to purse a brand of integrationist politics with Britain as if Northern Ireland was no different from England; as if Nationalists did not exist or did not matter.
The second seat will almost certainly go to sitting MEP Bairbre De Bruin (Sinn Fein) with a straight down the line Nationalist/Republican vote.
Also On the Nationalist side, the more centrist SDLP has been severely eclipsed by Sinn Fein since the retirement of John Hume and as part of the ongoing process of polarisation in Northern Ireland politics which has seen parties from the fringes continually marginalise those with sought to develop some kind of more moderate non-sectarian centre in Northern Ireland politics.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The SDLP’s main hope is that their candidate, Alban Maginness (not to be confused with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness), will benefit from the three way split in the Unionist vote between Dodds, Allister and Nicholson, and sneak in for the last seat with the help of transfers from minor parties and candidates. It may be a forlorn hope unless there is a major change in Northern Ireland voting patterns with a significant increase in non-sectarian and cross community vote transfers.
The irony here is that the British Government agreed to use the Irish single transferable vote system instead of the “First past the post” system as used in British Parliamentary elections or the List System as used in British European Parliamentary elections in an explicit attempt to encourage more cross community vote transfers and to enable more proportional outcomes to the elections. However with Northern Ireland having just three European Parliament seats, two are always going to go to the 60% majority (Unionist) community, with one going to the minority Nationalist Community.
Perhaps reflecting the certainty of this outcome, there are, remarkably, no opinion polls on the EP elections in Northern Ireland. However, I for one, will be keenly watching the detail of the vote counts and transfer of patterns for lower preference votes in order to see if their is some change in the traditional voting patterns and to see whether the peace process is finally trickling down from the political class to the behaviour of ordinary voters.
If you see Alban McGuinness of the SDLP getting anywhere close to a European Parliament seat you will know that “the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” are indeed capable of change.