Stephen Spillane has posted a very interesting article on the European elections in Northern Ireland. Crudely put, the gist of it was that with the MEP Jim Allister setting up his own party after breaking away from the DUP means that the unionist vote could be spread out over more candidates. This would mean that the traditional 2 Unionist MEPs and 1 Nationalist MEP balance could be changed (but read his article to get a better sense of this with some handy numbers).
As someone from Northern Ireland, I guess I should have said something about the elections here before, but I have to admit that I haven't found the European elections in NI interesting - there hasn't really been any campaigning yet, though I think the candidates are pretty much selected, and the communal divide means that the poll won't even mean that the result can indicate and shift in political opinion in a way that matters in an EU sense or even in the traditional political sense of left v right. Elections in NI are largely still just the popular method of measuring the political weight of (1) each community in comparison to the other (2) each of the parties strength within their own community.
On the other hand, the election is interesting in that it could show developments in these areas, which I have perhaps been wrong to dismiss as not really that interesting. (Perhaps it's more interesting from the outside since it's different from "normal" politics?).
So I'll try to say something about the European elections in NI with a bit of pan-European perspective. However, I should give some background first.
Northern Ireland elects its MEPs by STV, just like constituencies in the Republic, but unlike the D'Hondt list system in the rest of the UK. NI sends 3 MEPs to the EP, and currently they are Bairbre De Brún (Sinn Fein), Jim Nicholson (UUP) and Jim Alister (TUV).
Background - the 5 main parties:
There are 5 main parties in NI (or four, depending on your perspective): the Alliance Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party. 2 Nationalist, 2 Unionist and 1 cross-community. Then there's the Traditional Unionist Voice, which was founded by Jim Allister, a current NI MEP who was elected on the DUP ticket in the last election.
DUP: The hardline unionist party, which has some fundamentalist christian viewpoints (though perhaps I'm confusing that with a lot of the party membership and leadership having those views). Currently the largest party in the NI Assembly, and promotes itself as defending the union with Britain and being able to force nationalists in line with their policies. Generally right wing, but more in the populist and fundamentalist religious sense rather than the classical right-wing economic sense. Is non-aligned within the EP, and is putting forward Diane Dodds (wife of Nigel Dodds, an NI Executive minister for finance). European policies? None, really - rhetoric focuses on ensuring that "Ulster's voice in Europe is a Unionist one", and on keeping Sinn Fein from claiming a propaganda victory of topping the poll. What this means in a practical policy sense I have no idea. ("At all times our priority must be the defeat of Sinn Fein"). The only hint at a European tinge to the language is the need for the agricultural sector in NI to have a strong voice in Europe.
Sinn Fein: The hardline nationalist party (or republican), and the biggest nationalist party in the Assembly. Very left-wing, and has a very effective campaigning machine. It has a website for the EU elections, and probably is the party in NI with the most widely known views on the EU and the Lisbon Treaty due to its involvement in the referendum campaign in the Republic. It has many of the traditional far-left critiques of the EU, and sits with the GUE-NGL in the EP. It is against the current "neo-liberal" version of Europe but is for a "critical but constructive engagement" with Europe. It is Gaullist in the sense it wants a Europe of sovereign states (would this not conflict with their idea of a "democratized UN"?), and it is for a classical neutrality for Ireland. Pro-(Irish)unification, pro-worker's rights, anti-Lisbon. It will be interesting to see if it plays its ideological cards in the North as well as the South or if it plays the communal game (I suspect the latter). Bairbre de Brún is their candidate.
UUP: the moderate unionist party, who have linked up with the Conservatives to portray itself as a pan-UK party (opposed to the DUP, its stronger rival, and Sinn Fein, which is pan-Ireland). They have a European Election selection on their website. The tone has changed to a more Tory-friendly line (which has upset the UUP's more left-wing supporters) - it did once use its alignment with the EPP as a selling point (influence in the EP while the DUP sit to the side without support, etc, etc.), but now points to its conservative links (MEP Jim Nicholson is the Conservative's UK Regional Affairs spokesperson in the EP, their website says). The tone of the UUP seems to be centre-right, pro-business, anti-red tape, anti-euro, anti-Lisbon - so the basic conservative line, really. However, the UUP also speak of the need for NI's agricultural sector to have a voice in Europe - I wonder what their policies are in this area, and if they conflict with the Tories anti-CAP stance? Also, by aligning themselves with the Conservatives, they are open to the same charges of being weak in the EP since they won't be part of the biggest (or second biggest) group anymore. It shouldn't affect them much electorally, though, in the sense that the DUP is in an even weaker group position. However, it could still have an effect, as I'll speculate later. Jim Nicholson is their candidate.
SDLP: Centre-left and very pro-European, they sit with the PES. But no separate page or tab for the European Elections on their website. There is only a policy summery rather than a proper policy document. They have traditional centre-left stances on issues such as workers rights, the importance of social aspects being incorporated into the single market, etc. Their policies seem quite thin except for support for introducing the Euro into NI. This could be a policy brought over from the last election, and it could be quite unpopular as NI has got a big boost from the drop in sterling's value - lots of shoppers crossing the border from the south to shop - especially in Enniskillen and Newry which are, or are in, traditionally nationalist areas. I've no idea who their candidate is.
The Alliance Party is cross community and aligned with the liberals in the EP. They have no chance of winning a seat in the EP, but they are the main opposition party in the Assembly and could attract transfers. They are also pro-Euro.
Euro Elections 2009:
Jim Allister, who has broken away from the DUP to form the even harder hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (he believes that Sinn Fein should be excluded from power sharing). So this election is important for the DUP - they have to show that they still retain the support of the unionist community, and that there aren't enough anti-DUP hardliners to make the TUV viable. I doubt that Allister will retain his seat; I think the question is how much potential he has to split the Unionist vote.
This could also make the the preferences of voters more important - the tendency for voters to express cross block preferences. E.g. the tendency for SDLP voters to list UUP candidates in preference (after SDLP candidates) before Sinn Fein candidates or Alliance candidates - with the thinking being that, since there will be a unionist MEP anyway, it is in the interests of SDLP/UUP supporters to ensure that their moderate block wins out over the more extreme/hardline parties. So how will the UUP's Tory alliance so down with SDLP voters? Will they list the Alliance (or SF) in higher preference to the UUP because of it? SDLP voters tend to be more pro-European - how will the strengthened Eurosceptic line of the UUP go down? Will this affect communal block voting considerations?
So on one level it is interesting to see how the mainstream parties fair and if the hardline parties will do better in the more settled post-St. Andrews Agreement environment. It will also be interesting to see if cross-block strategic voting will be strengthened and will coalition-style thinking begin to enter onto the NI political scene?
You may have noticed that as far as normal politics go, nationalists and unionists are restricted to a certain side of the right-left divide. For those who look forward to more normal politics, NI has a long way to go, and, really, can never fully get there until the constitutional/national question is resolved, or deemed unimportant.
Interesting in one sense, frustrating and restrictive (and predictable) in another.
Nosemonkey has said that he might not vote in the European elections because of the list system in the UK. I prefer the candidate-centred STV approach, yet in some ways the political culture of NI means that my political choices are more restricted.