Is progressive unionism needed to put an end to the deadlock in Northern Ireland politics? 

In the zero-sum world that is Northern Irish politics, it is difficult to imagine a time in which sub-varieties of the country’s two main forms of political expression—nationalism, and unionism—existed.

Yet in the wild world of the 1990s, that was indeed the case. The peace process was opening previously unimaginable possibilities, allowing for some meaningful blurring of ideological lines in the spirit of the new era of peace and reconciliation it promised.

Among the Protestant working-class, a left-wing ‘progressive unionism’ was going in style. After a decade chafing at the margins, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) was fast becoming one of the country’s big players—so much so that it forced those running the show to configure the electoral system in a way that guaranteed the PUP seats at the negotiating table.

At first glance, a liberal form of unionism sounds like an oxymoron. At its core, ‘liberalism’ is a mode of thought seeking to balance the relationship between people and power by extending political, social, and economic liberty to the maximum number of individuals, thereby empowering people who, for one reason or another, find themselves excluded from decision-making processes. ‘Conservatism,’ by contrast, tends to support the maintenance of established hierarchies.

In Northern Ireland, where large sections of the oppressed Catholic minority traditionally identified with a foreign nation, liberal objectives almost always intertwined with nationalist ones, even if they didn’t necessarily seek the ultimate dissolution of the state. But those technicalities barely mattered because the liberal/nationalist overlap helped engender a natural understanding between unionism and conservatism.

The conservative Ulster Unionist Party dominated unionism throughout the twentieth century, and the radicalization of unionist politics at the beginning of the Provisional IRA's armed campaign in the early 1970s led to the emergence of the far-right Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Quietly in the background, however, a new crop of left-leaning loyalists were building a movement, seeking to forge a new consensus in Northern Ireland based on a shared set of liberal progressive values.

The PUP was initially an outgrowth of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). One of its early personalities, Gusty Spence, was a UVF volunteer and former British Army sergeant who served in Cyprus. Spence was well-attuned to the utility of armed force but believed in the sanctity of serving one's country, a belief that transcended his politics and allowed him to endow a certain degree of respect upon his hated enemies in the Provisional IRA.

Perhaps due to his first-hand experience dealing with the vexed Cyprus question, Spence also believed that war often did not (and could not) end with a definitive victory for one side, and sometimes its only purpose was to initiate political dialogue between opposing sides.

Spence was arrested in 1966 for the murder of Peter Ward. While serving his sentence in Long Kesh, he became the leader of a coterie of other prisoners responsive to his political ideology (including future PUP leaders David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson). This group became convinced that electoral politics was the only way forward for Ulster, and upon their release in the 1980s, they overtook the nascent PUP and fastened it to their political vision.

Read more: Who are the DUP, the Northern Irish political party at the heart of the Brexit blockage?

For most of its adolescence, the PUP found a steady base of between 3,000 and 4,000 people concentrated mostly in Belfast’s Protestant working-class communities. But the 1990s peace process dislodged many of the old assumptions that had traditionally defined identity and politics in Northern Ireland, and voters no longer saw a contradiction in supporting a party that advocated equal rights for Catholics and fought for the maintenance of the union.

The PUP garnered 3,839 first preference votes in the 1989 local elections, but that figure ballooned to 26,082 at the 1996 Forum elections, earning it two seats at the table with the political titans of the day.

Its political influence was always small—at its peak, it was only the fourth largest unionist party and the seventh largest party overall—but there was always a sense that the constituency it represented was far larger (and more significant) than its share of votes. The Irish government recognized this fact, and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds chose to deal with it separately on a number of occasions.

But perhaps its most important contribution to the peace process was that it was often the only unionist party willing to cross the sectarian divide and deal with nationalists directly. While the UUP kept Sinn Féin at arms’ length and the DUP refused to even recognize the legitimacy of the negotiations, PUP leaders repeatedly called for all-party talks.

The PUP also championed many of the policy proposals that were then still lightning rods for mainstream unionists. It was the only party that consistently advocated for a power-sharing legislature that guaranteed ministerial posts for both nationalists and unionists, and it proposed a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights that would include, among other protections, guarantees of religious equality—an olive branch designed explicitly to appease nationalists.

When the Good Friday Agreement was finally signed, the PUP helped spearhead the campaign to win loyalist support—a responsibility the DUP consciously absolved—ultimately securing the narrow unionist majority that ratified the deal and, importantly, earning the affirmation of the loyalist rank-and-file which made it effective.

The ink was barely dry when Northern Ireland already began slipping back into the binary rigidity that is so characteristic of its political system today. In its effort to attract middle-class voters and oust the SDLP as the main voice of nationalism, Sinn Féin moved to the left, adopting policy positions typical of other modern progressive parties in Europe.

The natural effect was that nationalists appropriated progressivism and left-wing politics in general, causing a polar reaction within unionism. Voters quickly abandoned the moderate UUP en masse, shifting their support to the far-right DUP and propelling its takeover of Ulster unionism by 2003. The PUP became an afterthought—its vote share more than halved in 2003 and it has continued to decline steadily since.

The consequence of this process was that the DUP’s version of unionism—ardently uncompromising and viciously right-wing—now defines not only twenty-first-century unionism but also Northern Ireland’s politics at-large (largely because of Sinn Féin’s unwillingness to take its seats in Westminster).

Read more: It seems many in DUP hate Catholics more than saving Brexit

All of this set the stage for the political maelstrom we are seeing today. The DUP and Sinn Féin refuse to engage each other in any meaningful way, and the anti-compromise climate it's created has left Northern Ireland in a political stasis, disempowering social service providers and harming those the political leaders are supposed to represent—ordinary people.

And, of course, the DUP’s immutable definition of the union and what it means to be British has hamstrung Parliament and all but scuttled Prime Minister Theresa May’s relatively moderate Brexit strategy, putting the United Kingdom on the verge of economic and political disaster and, most ironically, making Irish unity a more likely outcome for Northern Ireland.

The 1990s engendered a spirit of compromise and open engagement that delivered the revolutionary Good Friday Agreement, but the aftermath has been much the same as it was before, and the further polarization of Northern Irish politics in the present day makes it most unlikely that a revival of progressive unionism will occur and break the deadlock.

What do you think is needed to break the deadlock in Northern Ireland? Let us know in the comments section, below. 

*Dan Haverty is an independent observer on Ireland's political landscape and not associated with the parties mentioned in this article.

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David Ervine mural in East Belfast.(CC BY-SA 2.0)