Northern Irish politics has always been broken, but the latest spate of election pacts reveals just how broken it really is.
When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, there was some hope that the coming era of peace would help the moderates lead the way to overcoming the sectarian divide and moving Northern Irish politics to a more stable—and functional—state.
Nearly ten years later, in 2007, Sinn Fein accepted the legitimacy of the police service and the DUP decided to go into government with former IRA members. It might have heralded the beginning of ‘post-sectarian’ politics in Northern Ireland, but whatever progress could have then developed from that momentous decision unraveled completely in 2016, after Brexit.
It started with the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister in January 2017, sparking an Assembly election in March which saw the loss of the unionist majority for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland. That loss of status caused unionists to dig their heels in, ditching the spirit of compromise and leading directly to the de facto suspension of Stormont.
All of this, of course, occurred against the backdrop of Brexit and renewed calls from across the island for Irish unity, hardening attitudes and giving both communities the cover to revert to their traditional positions.
Since then, Brexit has become the defining issue of this generation, making the upcoming election a potential watershed for 21st century Ireland and the UK. Political leaders in Northern Ireland have grasped this historic occasion, and they are beginning to reach across ancient barriers for allies on the Brexit question in places once considered taboo.
The cleavage between moderate nationalists and the more radical republicans is well-documented, but nationalists of all shades are now openly cooperating. Sinn Fein has agreed to stand aside in tony South Belfast, where the SDLP’s Claire Hanna is taking on sitting DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly. The SDLP returned the favor by closing up shop in North Belfast, where Sinn Fein’s John Finucane—son of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, who was murdered by UDA gunmen at his home in 1989—will stand against high-profile DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds. The SDLP has also agreed to clear the way for Sinn Fein in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where incumbent Michelle Gildernew will face a stiff test against the unionist challenger.
Interestingly, nonsectarian parties also seem to be breaking the mold and cooperating with the nationalist side. Although the Greens have much to lose and little to gain from an election pact, party leader Clare Bailey recently announced that they would not contest the North and South Belfast seats, effectively throwing her party’s weight behind Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
Alliance has yet to remove itself from any of the headline contests, but the pressure is mounting as both nationalist parties and the Greens have agreed to pull out of the race for the predominantly loyalist working-class East Belfast seat, where Alliance leader Naomi Long is challenging the incumbent, the DUP’s Gavin Robinson.
Most striking of all is Sinn Fein’s—and, to a lesser extent, the SDLP’s—decision to stand aside in North Down, where Sylvia Hermon, an anti-Brexit independent unionist, was slated to contest the seat against the DUP’s Alex Easton. Hermon has since announced that she will not stand in the election, but the republican leadership’s willingness to endorse a unionist was still an unprecedented move in the history of the movement and the country.
The unionist side is more simple and less jarring, but still reveals a slight (if reluctant) rapprochement between the moderate UUP and hardline DUP. UUP leader Steve Aiken’s initial decision not to form any pacts with the DUP was met with widespread opposition from unionists (and some less-than-democratic threats from loyalist paramilitaries).
The DUP urged Aiken to stand down in North Belfast, ramping up the pressure by stating it would not contest the race in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where a split unionist vote would have undoubtedly cost the UUP’s Tom Elliott the election and handed the seat to Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.
Aiken succumbed, ultimately deciding that “it is better to elect Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and hold him to account for his promises on the union than facilitate the election of an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP who still cannot condemn IRA violence.” The UUP will pull out of North Belfast, leaving Dodds to take on Finucane alone.
All of these alliances are cutting across party, class, and ideological lines to a degree unseen in the history of the country. Moderate nationalists and unionists, who traditionally held the power in their communities and who fought strongly over the past two decades to prevent the rise of the radicals, have now willfully ceded ground to their greatest existential threats.
Nonsectarian parties, who generally try to stay as far away from the constitutional question as possible, have quietly agreed to take the nationalist side. And most shockingly of all, the largest republican party in the country was willing to endorse a unionist, going far beyond what had always been considered acceptable political behavior.
This election has already challenged some of the most well-established notions of Northern Irish politics. New lines have been drawn. It shows that there are times in which moderates and radicals are willing to work together; there are times in which nonsectarian parties are willing to take sectarian stances, and there are times in which republicans are willing to support unionists. The more optimistic of us are inclined to believe this could offer a blueprint for a future realignment and a new era.
But the more pessimistic of us will remind that these will almost certainly only be temporary arrangements. They are motivated exclusively by Brexit, and when the crisis inevitably passes, each side will retreat to their familiar, dogmatic starting points.
More than that, even if we imagine Brexit being prolonged another five or so years (delivering another two or three general elections) and thus normalizing these types of cross-sectarian alliances, Northern Ireland’s deeply divisive, single-issue political system will merely shift to another deeply divisive, single issue.
At surface-level, it will all seem different. The new blocs will fight over where the other stood during the Brexit debate, and their animosities will be informed by the current, highly-charged climate. But the core way of doing politics in the country will have remained virtually unchanged.
Even the most hopeful outlook—indeed, the only one with any plausible chance of changing the present environment—lends to a system equally as divisive, harsh, uncompromising, polarizing, and static as the present one. And, in the end, this new, hypothetical version of Northern Irish politics will always be informed by the constitutional question anyway, meaning political discourse will still ultimately flow from the Orange and the Green. Even that scenario is rather bleak.
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