Friday 17 April 2009

Northern Ireland and the European Elections

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.


  1. raivo

    Die türkische Notenbank

    hat am Donnerstag erneut die Zinsen gesenkt. Dieses Mal um 75 Basispunkte, womit sich der Leitzins nunmehr auf 9,75 Prozent beläuft. Insgesamt summieren sich die Zinssenkungen damit in den vergangenen vier Monaten auf beachtliche 525 Basispunkte. Und die Volkswirte bei Capital Economics können sich sogar vorstellen, dass die Leitzinsen im weiteren Jahresverlauf noch bis auf acht Prozent zurückgenommen werden.

    Die türkische Lira hat diese Entwicklung zuletzt relativ gut weggesteckt, obwohl sie theoretisch unter dem sinkenden Zinsvorsprung leiden sollte. Aber auch sie profitiert eben von der allgemein wieder gestiegenen Risikoneigung der Anleger sowie dem Wiederaufleben der so genannten Carry Trades.

  2. Danke fuer deine sehr einsichtlichen Kommentare; ich habe immer gedacht, dass die tuerkische Notenbank einer der wichtigsten Teile des nordirischen politischen Systems ist.

    Mit dieser neuen Ankuendigung der tuerkische Notenbank wird die nordirische Wirtschaft sehr bedeutend betroffen. Diese Entwicklung koennte die SDLP (und die Alliance) sehr schwer beschaedigen, wegen ihrer Europolitik.

  3. Ah, Raivo Pommer - I see you read my post about commenting more on other people's blogs! If only you weren't a spambot, eh?

    @Eurocentric: Fantastic post. Despite having lived in NI, I never really got a handle on its politics. You made the right choice by assuming the reader wasn't familiar with the various different parties and by explaining the situation properly.

    More like this!

  4. Thanks!

    NI politics can be quite confusing, but a lot of it can be explained by the tendency of each community to constantly assess who is "winning" in the political great game, and the factor that each of the two main parties for each community has to fight each other to show who is the most effective at getting the most concessions out of the other side.

    It can be very interesting, but from the inside it can be both frustrating and boringly predictable at times.

  5. Oh, where did you live in NI, exactly? (And why?)

  6. Eurocentric,

    I appreciated your post; a good overview for outsiders, yet detailed enough to give us a picture of various fault lines.

  7. Hi, Eurocentric!

    I worked in Derry/Londonderry (the town so great they named it twice) for about six months. I carried out an internship with a conflict research institute at the University of Ulster and trained as a community mediator with a local NGO. I also worked in a pound-store to make ends meet.

    Got a good cross-section of NI society working at all those places; from academics, to former paramilitaries, to people so poor they shopped exclusively at pound-stores.

    I actually heard most people say they were fed up with politicians grand-standing about the "two communities" and just wanted things to get back to "bread and butter" politics. I wonder if Derry is unusual, or if this just doesn't translate to the polls.

  8. @ Josef

    You probably know more about it than me then! That's quite a comprehensive experience.

    I'd say it just doesn't translate to the polls - most people are tired of grandstanding, but it's hard to vote in a cross-community way when each party pushes a community line. It's also hard to set up/get people to support a cross-community party like the Alliance if the community-based parties' rhetoric makes you feel that it would be a mistake to weaken the parties of your own community.

    @ Grahnlaw


  9. Pretty good analysis there!

    Eurocentric I don't think the Alliance party appeal to the mainstay of either community, being too moderate for most unionists and too unionist for most nationalists.

    Interestingly, it seems that since the parties HAVE to work together now this has really polarized the vote. Is there a need for moderate parties when you can now vote Sinn Féin / DUP and know that they have to work for you?

    Moreover I've heard it thrown about that SF could actually top the polls with the TUV splitting the vote, which would be a big propaganda win for them. If two nationalist MEPs got through it would really cause a shake up!

  10. Hi Jon

    You're right that the Alliance has a tough time appealing to people when the electorate is so divided - perhaps you could even say that there are 2 electorates in NI.

    Still, the Alliance does attract transfers from the SDLP and the UUP voters who can't bring themselves to trnasfer their votes to the more extreme parties. And as (if) the unionist vote splits, transfers will become more important - though it will take a lot to make a change to the current 1 SF/1 UUP/1 DUP set up.

    The SF-DUP commitment to work together can work in their favour since a vote for them doesn't destabilise the system. At the same time, now that the extremes have achieved the compromises they said were needed for them to sit in gov. together, is there a need for them? After all, their strength came from the idea of boosting a strong negotiating line to get the best deal for each side; now the name of the game is effective governing, the needs and (perhaps) desires of the electorate may change.

    Of course, the UUP and SDLP need to make themselves an attractive option first (perhaps they should sit in opposition as a "gov. in waiting" and have a electoral campaign alliance for promoting cross-community transfers? A massive step, but perhaps the only one to save them?).

    Spot on on the propaganda point. If SF top the poll, it could be used to deflect attention from any southern losses - and some have predicted that Mary Lou McDonald will loose her Dublin seat.