The UK General Election, Electoral Pacts and Sectarian Headcounts

David Cameron (UK Home Office; CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

David Cameron (UK Home Office; CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

The people have well and truly spoken, the bastards. If there is any consolation to be taken from the fact that the UK faces five more grim years of (now-undiluted) Tory government as a result of David Cameron‘s party having been delivered an overall majority in the House of Commons during the early hours of yesterday morning, one might at least observe that the likes of the socially-retrograde DUP (of Islamophobichomophobic, anti-women and barking-mad creationist notoriety) and UKIP (the apparently-tolerable face of the crass, hysterical, fear-mongering and racially-tinged politics of division) will not have influence as governmental kingmakers. It is only a smidgen of consolation, mind. With plans for a “rollercoaster” £30 billion cuts programme and a re-attack on civil liberties already in place, the next five years shall nevertheless be long ones.

In the north of Ireland, we have learned that cynical electoral pacts both have popular appeal and clearly work. An agreement of pragmatism over strict principle between the two main Ulster unionist parties saw the DUP’s Gavin Robinson stand as the single unionist candidate in Belfast East; he duly unseated Naomi Long of the Alliance Party in winning what otherwise might have been a tally of 19,575 votes split between two separate unionist candidates. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds also topped the pole in Belfast North, where he was the single unionist candidate, whilst sole-unionist Tom Elliott of the UUP surprisingly took the Fermanagh & South Tyrone seat (the entire 2010 general election’s most tightly-contested seat with a margin of four votes then) from Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin. The attempted identity-based carve-up of Newry & Armagh did not generate the same level of success for pan-unionism, but with three out of the four selected constituencies returning favourable results for the bloc, the tactic will, no doubt, become a regular and more extensively-used one in the future as unionism sees fit to subdue the ever-growing nationalist threat.

Such mono-dimensional election pacts, which pit one community against the other, are regressive, cynical and crude in their appealing to the lowest common denominator. They prey upon the basest and most paranoid of electorate emotions; those being the idea of the representation and primacy of the loyalist cultural identity above all else and an appetite to safeguard unionist dominance at all costs with disregard for pressing bread-and-butter socio-economic issues. The continual loyalist protesting over the limitation on the flying of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall has been another unsightly manifestation of this communal paranoia and you can be sure the unionist parties were more than delighted to stir matters to their advantage by playing up notions of unionism and loyalism being under attack whilst pointing fingers of blame across the communal divide. Meanwhile, the pacts strategy possessed the subtlety of a bull in a china shop and the unionist parties were rightly subjected to stern criticism from both nationalists and neutrals on account of their agreement. Naomi Long denounced the pacts as “anti-democratic” with the SDLP describing them as “sectarian”.

Whether one appreciates such a tactic or not, however, pacts are undeniably democratic in that they offer a choice. Admittedly, such a choice may be somewhat superficial, limited or even insulting to the subject electorate, but if people wish to support the option offered, they are free to do so. On the other hand, if people wish to reject what is on offer under a particular pact or if even they wish to represent another strand of thought by standing on a platform more preferable to them, they can do that too. That is the democratic process.

As noted, the fear and insecurity within the modern-day Ulster unionist psyche was palpable in light of the resorting to such desperate tactics, but unionists, as sentient beings with rational and emotional intelligence like anyone else, are entitled to be feared and insecure like anyone else, and to respond to such feelings appropriately and democratically, if they wish, by means of agreeing or supporting electoral pacts. Nationalists and republicans simply have to accept that and deal with it. The most effective means of doing this would be to reassure the unionist community that they have nothing to fear from nationalism and to ensure that unionism’s representatives have as little fuel as possible to maliciously exploit for the purposes of stoking sectarian tensions and perpetuating their community’s insecurities.

2015 results from Fermanagh & South Tyrone (BBC via Slugger O’Toole).

The nationalist SDLP were also criticised by many within republicanism for an unwillingness to either step aside (when in the significantly-weaker position of the two nationalist parties in a particular constituency) or agree with the abstentionist Sinn Féin on fielding pan-nationalist candidates for the more marginal seats split along nationalist-unionist lines. However, as personally pleasing as it might have been to see political dinosaurs like Tom Elliott miss out on election and as frustrating as it must be for Sinn Féin to lose seats to unionism by margins as slim as a few hundred votes, I fail to see why there should be some nationalist moral duty or expectation upon the completely independent SDLP to stand aside in constituencies such as Fermanagh & South Tyrone, especially when Sinn Féin refuse to take their seats in the House of Commons out of principle anyway.

To blame the SDLP for Sinn Féin’s electoral shortcoming in Fermanagh & South Tyrone (the margin this time round was 530 votes in Elliott’s favour) would be to deflect responsibility. It would also be to insult the sensibilities of the local electorate there. The SDLP were entitled to stand as a democratic party and the constituents of Fermanagh & South Tyrone were entitled to vote for John Coyle, the party’s democratic representative there. It is simply unknown whether or not 531 voters who had voted for Coyle might otherwise have voted for Sinn Féin had Coyle not been partaking, thereby helping Gildernew to victory, but the fundamental problem remained a Sinn Féin inability to convince such voters of better or of a good enough reason to prioritise the alternative nationalist option open to them. The 2,732 nationalist voters who voted in support of Coyle were free to reject him (in favour of Gildernew), just as they were free and not compelled to vote for him. Besides, 31.1 per cent of constituents in the area did not register a vote at all; there were plenty of other potential voters aside from the 50,864 who did vote (including those 2,732 SDLP voters) there for Sinn Féin’s convincing. To try and place blame upon John Coyle and the SDLP is just too cheap and lazy.

Indeed, if simply having any nationalist candidate elected was Sinn Féin’s sole and unconditional priority, the party could always have selflessly stepped aside and let the SDLP enjoy the benefit of the entire nationalist vote, but Sinn Féin was seemingly not prepared to do this, so pontificating to the SDLP does not quite stand to scrutiny, especially when, as already mentioned, the party maintains the abstentionist policy anyway. Would Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir step aside in Belfast South, for example, in order to allow the more popular Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP to take the seat there in future? I would be very surprised if Sinn Féin self-demanded such expectations in reverse.

Sinn Féin electoral leaflet for North Belfast (Slugger O’Toole).

Whilst we had electoral pacts on the unionist side, it was correspondingly disheartening to see Sinn Féin employing similar ignoble principles in a pre-election promotion leaflet advancing Gerry Kelly‘s case in Belfast North. The leaflet indicated (using figures purported to be lifted from the 2011 census) that those who identified as Catholic (or who had been raised as Catholic) totaled 46.94 per cent of the population of the constituency, whilst those identifying as Protestant (and as of other religions) totaled a marginally-smaller proportion of 45.67 per cent. The obvious and disillusioning suggestion behind the rather ill-conceived leaflet was that Catholics in the area should forget about their general politics for the day and vote for Sinn Féin simply on account of being Catholic, whereas the outnumbered Protestant population were pitted as direct political competition. Potential support from the Protestant community or the ambition of winning support from that community seemingly did not figure in Sinn Féin’s equation of possibilities nor the Belfast North electoral team’s imaginations at all, at least not for this election anyway. The objective of the presumptuous conflation of Catholic identification with republican politics was to try and unseat the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, who, in 2010, had possibly either benefited from some Catholic votes or from the fact that Catholics voted, not exclusively for Sinn Féin, but also for other contesting parties like the SDLP and Alliance. As Eamonn McCann succinctly put it, the leaflet was more-or-less impressing upon nationalists in Belfast North the idea: “We are the top dogs now, let’s get them uns out”.

Of course, the partition of the island of Ireland and creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 along crude ethno-religious lines wove the concept of sectarian headcounts into the very fabric of the still-internally-divided northern statelet. The idea of religion as a social marker remains a political reality to this day, with the large Catholic minority having historically tended to sympathise or identify with Irish nationalism and the Protestant majority having historically tended to sympathise or identify with Ulster unionism, ever since Britain so effectively employed colonial “divide and rule” tactics in what was its first imperial laboratory. However, the leaflet was simply indefensible on principle. It completely went against the secular spirit and non-sectarian ideals of classical Irish republicanism that encompass the age-old tradition of the Society of the United Irishmen and Protestant forefathers such as Theobald Wolfe Tone, James Napper Tandy and Henry Joy McCracken.

The sectarian reality of the modern day is a regressive reality away from which noble Irish republicanism should be persistently trying to move. Credible republicanism that is worth its salt should not be reinforcing that undesirable reality, nor should it be exploiting such a curse by playing the card of religion (like in the manner of how Randolph Churchill played the Orange card in 1886) for short-term electoral gain and at the certain cost of alienating Ulster Protestants, who, as a broad community of fellow Irish men and women with a capital-N Northern, British or Ulster-Scots emphasis, republicans simultaneously and somehow seek to re-convince of the merits of the radical ideals of the United Irishmen. I fail to see how such material as that published in the leaflet might reassure Protestants, already suspicious of modern-day nationalist and republican interests and aspirations, that there is a safe and welcome – never mind equal – place for them to enjoy in a future independent, democratic and pluralist united Ireland. If the leaflet had been produced by the DUP or UUP, republicans would rightly and roundly have condemned it.

I would like to think that the mainstream republican strategy for achieving future Irish unity amounts to something more inspiring and convincing than simply hoping Catholics will eventually multiply to outnumber an unwilling population of Protestants in the north of Ireland some day. Not that an overall Catholic majority would guarantee majority support for Irish unity anyway. This was aptly demonstrated by the Belfast North election result; in terms of the immediate effect of the leaflet itself, it appears it backfired in possibly rubbing some Catholics up the wrong way and perhaps even galvanised unionist and Protestant community support behind Dodds as Kelly failed to win the seat by a total of 5,326 votes, despite the slim outnumbering of Protestants by Catholics in the constituency. So, yes, whilst those identifying as Catholic in Belfast North might make up the largest community there, that does not necessarily translate into automatic nationalist control. Republicans must work harder and be more creative than that exhibited in the regrettable electoral leaflet if the movement’s aspirations are genuinely more long-term and far-reaching than simply winning numbers games on an election-by-election basis.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting article. I disagree on a few broad points, including

    a) what makes NI politics sectarian is almost everyone voting for single-issue nationality politics. How many from each bloc contest any given election is largely irrelevant. Because you have no greater choice when Nesbitt, Allister and Hutchinson all stand against Robinson than when none do. They’re just wings of the Orange Order, not real parties. Recognising that is the only way to justify the previously establishment unionist party not standing in the previously safest unionist seats

    b) the SDLP seem to have favored deliberately weak candidates as a nudge to electoral co-operation. Either inexperienced and thus unknown (FST) or semi-retired and not canvassing (East BT). It’s not their fault Gildernew lost (there have been rumors of locals unimpressed by her campaign and machine), or that Long however successful couldn’t hope to win back the flag protestors. Actually I imagine Long agrees with her party colleagues, if she wants to go into Stormont it should be straightforward after Thursday’s vote

    c) the ever-increasing nationalist vote isn’t, is it? Stuck at 38.4%, like last year. And that’s given Orangeism’s absurdity, gay-bashing and apathetic 50% turnouts. They’re clearly in decline, maybe quite imminent, so what does that say for the Shinner alternative?

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    1. The PUP’s more working-class-oriented socio-economic outlook would differ significantly from that of the mainstream unionist parties on the right, no? They’d have had wind in their sails after the loyalist flag protests. Yet they decided not to run either, excusing themselves due to supposed lack of finances, of course.

      I think we’re in agreement that the SDLP cannot be blamed for Sinn Féin’s electoral shortcomings. If Sinn Féin failed to pick up votes (despite Gildernew’s tally having risen by about 1,700 since 2010), that’s solely a Sinn Féin issue. No point pointing fingers of blame elsewhere. I was pretty clear on that.

      Interesting theory though; you reckon the SDLP put the unknown and inexperienced Coyle forward (his public appearances/utterances were uninspiring, it has to be said) in the hope many of their their usual or potential voters would actually vote for Gildernew instead? A considerable number still voted for Coyle, mind. And the SDLP have always been very reluctant to fall in line with Sinn Féin, but, then, as you say, your theory suggests the SDLP’s suspected roll-over was anything but overt. Can we be sure the SDLP would have preferred to see the abstentionist Gildernew win the seat over Elliott anyway? The SDLP were very critical of the policy of abstention in the run-up.

      On the “ever-increasing nationalist threat”, fair point. I was referring more so to the long-term trend, but I do acknowledge the slight recent dip. Whether it’s due to a temporary malaise or whether things will plateau remains to be seen. Obviously, I’d prefer it to be a case of the former with something needed to re-energise the nationalist cause. The inevitable EU referendum might just be that medicine. Perhaps conservative nationalists have been left disillusioned of late by more progressive stances on abortion and same-sex marriage also.

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