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'Political Groupings in Northern Ireland' by Michael Connolly



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Text: Michael Connolly ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following chapter has been contributed by the author, Michael Connolly, with the permission of the publishers, Macmillan Press Ltd. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

Politics and Policy-making in Northern Ireland
by Micheal Connolly (1990)

Originally published by Philip Allan,
then: Macmillan Press Ltd.;   now: Palgrave Macmillan,
ISBN 0 86003 412 7 (Hardback)
ISBN 0 86003 712 6 (Paperback, 12.99)

Palgrave Macmillan
Brunel Road
Houndmills
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This publication is copyright Macmillan Press Ltd. 1990 and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Macmillan Press Ltd. and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.


Contents
Acknowledgements
1 Introduction: Northern Ireland - The Place and the People
Demographic and social background
The importance of religion
A relatively underdeveloped economy
Conclusion: considerable political challenges
2 Historical Background: From Stongbow to Partition
The most Gaelic part of Ireland
The Ulster plantations
William of Orange and the Battle of the Boyne
Protestants as Nationalists
After the Union
The Great Famine and its Effects
Agitation for Home Rule
The partition of Ireland
Conclusion: the stage is set
3 Creating the State: 1920-1939
The provisions of the 1920 Act
The Treaty of 1921
Westminster-Stormont relations
The financial position
The relationship with the rest of Ireland
Conflict within Northern Ireland
Catholic vulnerability
Law and order and special powers
The ailing economy
Conclusion: continuing enmity
4 Pulling the House Down?: 1939-1990
Developments in the 1950s
The rise of Terence O'Neill
1967 and beyond
Discrimination against Catholics
The debate about discrimination
The civil rights marches
Growing unionist dissent
The British army moves in
The downfall of Stormont
Direct Rule and Sunningdale
The 1974 strike and its political impact
Law and order
The Anglo-lrish Agreement
Conclusion: continuities and change
5 Government Institutions in Northern Ireland
Problems with the old system of local government
The Macrory Report
Local government finance
Current pressures on local government
Government by public agencies: education, health and housing
Government by public agencies: policing and employment
Northern Ireland government
The role of the Secretary of State
Governmental machinery
Central government under Direct Rule
Parliament and Northern Ireland
Conclusion: taking administration out of politics - at a price
6 Political Groupings in Northern Ireland
The basic political divide
Two varieties of Unionism
The unionist political parties
Recent disagreements between the unionist parties
The loyalist paramilitaries
The Alliance Party
Two varieties of Nationalism
Conclusion: intra-communal party competition
7 Policy-making in Northern Ireland
Pressure for common standards
The Northern Ireland policy community
The policy community at work
Issues around the Northern Ireland problem
Finance and public' expenditure issues
Other policy issues
The autonomy of the political process
The housing policy network
Policy implementation: the delivery of services
Conclusions: cohesion and a measure of autonomy
8 Understanding the Northern Ireland Problem
'Keeping the lid on'
The defeat of the Power-Sharing Executive
The importance of the strike
The Northern Ireland Assembly
The Anglo-lrish Agreement
Analysing the Northern Ireland problem
Conclusions: an intractable problem
References
Index



Chapter 6

Political Groupings in Northern Ireland

This chapter describes the main political groupings in Northern Ireland and in so doing seeks to find insights into the politics of the territory. As is clear, these are characterised by a high degree of polarisation. Phrases such as 'bipolar political society', 'governing without consensus' and 'ideological style of political discourse' have been used to describe the strongly conflictual nature of politics within Northern Ireland (Arthur 1984; Bew et al. 1979; Birrell and Murie 1980; Rose 1971, 1976). The polarisation takes place around two competing ideologies, namely unionism and nationalism, and it is these deeply-felt and mutually-exclusive ideologies that give Northern Irish politics its distinctive nature.

The basic political divide

The basic issue behind these ideologies is the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Unionists support Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom, while Nationalists are in favour of closer ties or even its union with the rest of Ireland. The conflict is further heightened in that this political cleavage coincides almost exactly with a religious division, Protestants being unionist and Catholics nationalist.

The depth of this political division is indicated by the fact that approximately 90 per cent of the votes cast in elections will be for parties firmly committed to these ideological positions, as shown in Table 6.1. Stronger evidence of the passions generated by politics in Northern Ireland is, of course, the prolonged violence, which in recent years has seen over 2,750 people killed, many more injured, and considerable intimidation of people in their homes and, to a lesser extent, at work.

Despite this political polarisation it is an oversimplification to describe Northern Ireland purely in terms of two rigid camps. Both communities have groups with different commitments to, and understandings of, these ideologies. There is also evidence that some issues cut across the central division in society. Class co-operation on specific and limited issues has taken place on occasions. For example, Devlin (1981) writes about Catholic and Protestant workers joining together to oppose aspects of government policy in the 1920s and 1930s.

In addition there are a number of small political parties - principally the Alliance party and the Workers Party - which make efforts to appeal to both sides. These may help to restrain the major division in some circumstances. Indeed, while Northern Ireland is often spoken about in terms of this central division there are some writers who, while accepting its reality, argue that 'there are factors which regulate and limit the conflict' (Darby 1985, p. 82).

Paradoxically, while a key element in the basic division is the argument about the British link, it might be argued that it is one of the major constraining factors. Considerable public expenditure has been employed to reduce economic and social deprivation. Without these funds, it is likely that the position would be a good deal worse. Some of the implications are examined later, but it is important to remember that politics in Northern Ireland are more complex than they are often presented.

Despite these caveats, however, there remains the basic political divide, and it is important to examine the main political groupings within each community. Arthur (1984, p. 52) points out that, since 1970, some ten new political parties have emerged, some with a short life-span. The focus here will be on the five main political groupings: the two main unionist parties, Official Unionist Party (OUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP); the main nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP); the main Republican party, Sinn Fein; and the Alliance Party, which though a unionist party attempts to appeal to both traditions within Northern Ireland. In addition, the main paramilitary groupings, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) on the loyalist side, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the republican side, will be discussed.

Table 6.1 Election results in Northern Ireland: 1975-87 (%)

The electoral performance of political parties in Northern Ireland


.
OUP
(%)
DUP
(%)
Other Unionist
(%)
Alliance
(%)
SDLP
(%)
Sinn Féin
(%)
Other Nationalist
(%)
WP
(%)
NILP
(%)
CP
(%)
Other
(%)
1975 Convention election
25.8
14.8
21.9
9.8
23.7
-
-
2.2
1.4
0.1
0.3
1979 General election
36.6
10.2
12.3
11.9
19.7
-
6.5
1.7
0.6
-
0.5
1979 European election
21.9
29.8
7.3
6.8
24.6
-
5.9
0.8
-
-
2.9
1982 Assembly election
29.7
23.0
5.7
9.3
18.8
10.1
-
2.7
-
-
0.7
1983 General election
34.0
20.0
3.1
8.0
17.9
13.4
-
2.0
-
-
0.3
1984 European election
21.5
33.6
2.9
5.0
22.1
13.3
-
1.3
-
-
0.3
1985 Local government election
29.5
24.3
3.1
10.0
21.1
11.4
2.4
1.6
-
-
2.4
1987 General election
37.9
11.7
5.3
10.0
21.1
11.4
-
2.6
-
-
-
1989 local government election
30.4
18.7
3.8
6.9
21.0
11.2
-
2.1
-
-
4.9

Source: Irish Times, and the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland
Note: OUP = Official Unionist Party; DUP = Democratic Unionist Party; SDLP = Social Democratic and Labour Party (includes independent SDLP in 1979 General election); WP = Workers' Party (formerly Republican Clubs); NILP = Norther Ireland Labour Party; CP = Communist Party

Two varieties of Unionism

While the principal tenet of Unionism is that the constitutional link with Britain should be preserved, there are a number of disparate elements in the political ideology of Unionism (Rose 1971; Todd 1987; Wallis et al. 1986; Wright 1973). Todd (1987) distinguishes between Ulster Loyalist and Ulster British ideologies. She argues that the essential characteristics of 'Ulster Loyalist' ideology are that its primary identification is as Northern Protestant while its identification with Britain involves only secondary loyalty. She claims that it derives its essential nature from the evangelical fundamentalist religious tradition, and that its core assumption is that the only alternative to Ulster loyalist dominance is Ulster loyalist defeat and humiliation (Todd 1987, p. 3).

As Moloney and Pollock (1986, p. 434) put it: 'Defeat would mean an all-Ireland Republic, and the spiritual and political slavery of Catholicism.' This notion of struggle - an inevitable struggle - with the forces of evil has often meant that the compromiser is to be suspected and it is vitally important to keep the chosen people secure and separate. Within this tradition, loyalty to Britain is conditional on the Protestantism of the monarch and on the British government dealing fairly with Ulster.

Frank Wright (1973) suggests a similar division, distinguishing between an extreme and a moderate or liberal Unionism. The extreme faction argue that Roman Catholicism is implacably opposed to the existence of a Northern Ireland state and, therefore, that 'concessions to particular socioeconomic demands of Catholics (for example, over jobs and housing discrimination) will in no way soften their political or religious hostility to Ulster' (Wright 1973, p. 237). 'Any Catholic or Nationalist self-assertion is seen as a stain on the Protestant ethos of the society and as an opening for bloody Republican rebellion' (Dewar et al. 1969 in Todd 1987, p. 7). For many loyalists, there is a great strength to be drawn from past victories against 'Romanism and Republicanism'. Carson's stand and victory against Home Rule is often quoted.

Todd (1987, p. 1 1) states that the imagined community within the 'Ulster British' ideology is Greater Britain, although within this there is a secondary regional identification with Northern Ireland. Unionists in this tradition - as with Wright's 'Liberal Unionist' - identify with the British parliamentary traditions, and generally disapprove of sectarianism. Certainly they are deeply uneasy with some of the wilder expressions of anti- Catholicism. They would also be more willing to engage in rational discussion about the merits of the Union, citing, for example, pragmatic considerations such as the quality of economic life and the Welfare State.

The unionist political parties

The extreme ideological position is represented by the Official Unionist Party (OUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party(DUP). While there is strong competition between the two parties for votes they hold a broadly similar political stance. Birrell and Murie (1980, p. 102) have argued that this contains four main elements:

  1. Rejection of a united Ireland.
  2. The maintenance of the border.
  3. The continuance of the Northern Ireland State and the union with Great Britain.
  4. The political ascendency of the Unionists.

Both parties tend to argue for a strong security policy. They believe that 'a political solution' (which means, in practice, compromise with those they see as Ulster's enemies) is difficult if not unacceptable.

In addition both parties tend to distrust British government attitudes towards Northern Ireland and wish to see devolved government restored so that the future will again be in the hands of the loyalist majority. This view is more strongly held within the DUP.

Both main Unionist parties, and the majority of the unionist community, are deeply hostile to the Republic of Ireland. On the whole they see it as an alien society, dominated by the Catholic clergy and desirous of taking over Northern Ireland. Sarah Nelson reports that those UDA 'officers' she interviewed saw the Republic of Ireland as anti-British and anti-Protestant. 'It insulted all the symbols they respected and the things with which they were familiar' (Nelson 1984, p. 113). Unionists see the territorial claims enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic as a fundamental source of offence. It prolongs the violence because it identifies both the government of the Republic of Ireland and the Provisional IRA as seeking a united Ireland (O'Malley 1983, p. 134).

Both the OUP and DUP have also considerable reservations about the role of the Catholic Church in political affairs. Suspicions stretch from a concern about specific issues, for example the view that the Catholic Church's desire to sustain a separate education system is divisive, to a general attitude that all things Catholic are suspect.

(A) The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)

This latter philosophy is held strongly within the DUP, which was formed by Ian Paisley in September 1971. At that time there was some talk of uniting anti-Faulkner Unionists into a single political party. However, Paisley pre-empted this with an announcement that he was going to form the DUP. While it is likely that this was a long-term strategy, the immediate announcement came after an IRA bomb exploded in a public house on the loyalist Shankill Road (Moloney and Pollock 1986, p. 267).

The DUP tends to take a more extreme view than the Official Unionist Party. In part, this stems from the close identification of the DUP with fundamentalist protestant sects, particularly Dr Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church, which are often strongly anti-Roman Catholic. The DUP usually supports such issues as closing of leisure centres on Sundays. It is also influenced by the fact that the OUP formed the government of Northern Ireland for approximately fifty years. The DUP came into existence as a result of disaffection with the actions of OUP ministers (Nelson 1984; Moloney and Pollock 1986). The DUP was to some extent a partv of the disaffected among the unionist community. It tends to thrive during periods of unionist crisis, As Molonev and Pollock (1986, p. 265) put it: 'The DUP vote has become a barometer of Protestant angst.'

The DUP remains dominated by Dr Paisley's strong personality. His physical presence and his ability to articulate the fears of many Unionists with a memorable, sometimes witty, phrase have made him a dominant figure in Northern Ireland's politics for the past twenty years (An example of his wit was when he replied to Terence O'Neill's remarks that he was engaged in bridge-building by declaring that the one thing a bridge and a traitor had in common was to cross over to the other side! (quoted in Arthur 1984, p. 94)). Many members of the Party believe that he is chosen by God to protect Ulster, and hence are reluctant to oppose him. Attacks on him by the media or other politicians on the whole do not affect his popularity. Indeed, they are taken as a sign of his integrity and the perfidious nature of his detractors. Those within the Party who attempt to generate alternative policies to him generally either have to come into line or leave (Smyth 1987). None the less, in recent years there has occurred a new influx into the DUP, a more secularised and well-educated group led by people such as Peter Robinson, MP for East Belfast, and Sammy Wilson, formerly Lord Mayor of Belfast.

(B) The Official Unionist Party (OUP)

The OUP traces its origins to the old Unionist Party that dominated Northern Ireland's politics for so long (Harbinson 1973). The Party was virtually unchallenged on the unionist side and its influence was felt in all aspects of life in Northern Ireland from 1922 onwards. This apparently monolithic structure eventually broke up under the pressures of having to come to terms with the civil rights movement and greater British 'interference'. Many Unionists found it hard to accept London's new involvement in Northern Ireland's affairs. Essentially, the OUP represents the remnants of the Unionist Party that refused to accede to the various reform proposals.

The OUP is closely intertwined with the Orange Order. Traditionally members of the Party were also members of the Order. Indeed this was one of the areas of concern expressed by Nationalists in general about the Unionist Party. The Order was also used to protect the Party against dissenting Protestants. For example, the Order made sure that Free Presbyterian ministers could not be chaplains of Orange lodges, a position that would provide them with considerable influence and aid the growth of Paisleyism (Moloney and Pollock 1986, pp. 51-2).

Currently, the OUP tends to have within its ranks a greater range of opinion than the DUP. For example, there are those within the Party who argue for integration with Britain. Additionally, some Official Unionists support the notion of a devolution on the basis of an agreed role for the Catholic community. But both of these are minority positions within the Party.

An important difference between the two parties is in the realm of personality - many Official Unionists find the personality of Dr Paisley a difficult one. Dr Paisley has attacked establishment figures in Unionism over a considerable number of years (Bruce 1986; Moloney and Pollock 1986). Moloney and Pollock argue that

almost at the very start of his career he had the three pillars of the Protestant establishment (that is Orangeism, Unionism and Presbyterianism) lined up against him and he against them. The rest of his career would be dominated by the battle between them. (Moloney and Pollock 1986, p. 55)

Recent disagreements between the unionist parties

An example of the tensions between the main unionist parties can be seen in their reactions to the entry of Sinn Fein into electoral politics, and to the Anglo-lrish Agreement. Both par- ties fiercely resented both, but how to oppose them was a crucial issue. A great deal of protest took place in local government, as well as on the streets. One important dimension to the protests therefore was focused on the role that local government should play in the unionist campaign.

Withdrawing from local government would constitute a powerful expression of dissent. On the other hand, a complete withdrawal could mean a major confrontation with the British government, possible involvement with loyalist paramilitaries and a danger of greatly increased violence. Further, many Official Unionist councillors have a strong tradition of support for established institutions - they were after all the ruling elite within Northern Ireland for a considerable time. In addition, there is still a tradition among some councillors that local government is about community service, and they are uneasy about party politics in this area.

In the main the DUP have been less willing to compromise and more willing to engage in conflict with central government than the OUP. It is dangerous to generalise, as there are many in the ranks of the OUP equally entrenched as those in the DUP, but on the whole the OUP would tend to a less militant position. In many cases it was the OUP councillors who adopted the more moderate position. For example, they were more willing to comply with legal requirements. In North Down Council, a strongly OUP council, Unionists voted to resume normal business in direct contradiction to party policy. The 'rebel' Unionists argued that the adjournment tactic had run its course, its propaganda value had diminished, the machinery of local government had continued to operate and a number of councils still theoretically engaged in boycotts had been meeting to discuss selective business (Connolly and Knox 1988).

Councillors from both parties were also divided on the tactic of mass resignation. DUP councillors approved a policy of joint resignation if the two leaders gave the go-ahead and their councillors in Castlereagh led the way by placing their written resignations in the hands of the Mayor (Peter Robinson), a move designed to pressure OUP councillors.

Among Official Unionists there was a measure of unease about this course of action, partly because they perceived significant difficulties for some of the unionist-controlled councils as a result. If, after resignations, a council was left with a quorum (one-quarter of the total number of councillors, according to the 1972 Local Government Act), it could either co-opt new members or proceed to by-elections. In the absence of a quorum government-appointed commissioners would make council decisions.

Broadly, the DUP argued against ending the adjournment policy, even for tactical reasons, as this would weaken their protest against the Agreement. The OUP on the other hand felt they had lost control of the protest and had not intended to come into conflict with the courts.

By the 1989 local government elections the mood had swung in favour of the OUP. In that election they improved their position relative to the DUP, and took that as a sign that their more measured approach had electoral approval. By early 1990 most councils were working normally, but the OUP, with the DUP, still persisted in stating that they would not engage in political talks with the British government or other political parties until the Anglo-lrish Agreement was suspended.

The loyalist paramilitaries

In addition to the political parties, Protestant paramilitaries play a part in extreme Unionism, though they have never had the significant role of the Republican paramilitaries. In the main this is due to the different position of the two communities in relation to the state. But Protestant paramilitaries have played an important role at key moments. During the 1974 Workers' Strike, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the largest loyalist paramilitary organisation, had a significant impact on the success of the strike. On other occasions some unionist politicians have created alliances with loyalist paramilitaries.

One of the striking paradoxes has been the political initiatives which the UDA have advanced (Arthur and Jeffrey 1988). For example, in January 1987 the UDA published Common Sense, which among other things suggested power-sharing. Common Sense was radically different from the thinking of two main unionist parties, which were somewhat critical of the UDA's paper, but which felt sufficiently vulnerable to set up a 'task force' to produce their own paper.

There are a number of Protestant paramilitary groupings, the most prominent of which are the UDA and the UVF. The latter is the more violent and hardline, while the UDA is the larger. The UDA has been adversely affected by a number of allegations linking some of its leaders to attempts to secure monies for themselves. Both organisations remain powerful forces in Northern Ireland society and cannot be discounted.

The Alliance Party

Most political parties in Northern Ireland are what is referred to as 'confessional parties', that is, they aspire to religious exclusiveness and class inclusiveness' (McAllister 1983, p. 62). As McAllister (1983, p. 62) says, the main parties have every- thing to gain from exacerbating the religious cleavage, while ,concomitantly muting intra-communal differences such as class', to ensure the maximum support within their community. There are nevertheless a number of political parties which are bi-confessional, that is, they aspire to appeal across the communal divide. The Northern Ireland Labour and Liberal Parties were examples before the 1960s. More recently, the Alliance Party is the principal party which fits this description.

The Party was formed from the convergence of Captain O'Neill's supporters in the Unionist Party, the remnants of the Liberal Party and moderate Unionists associated with the New Ulster Movement, a non-party pressure group formed to support O'Neill's policies. The Alliance Party usually obtains between 7 and 10 per cent of the vote, drawn from both sides of the community. Indeed, given the levels of violence in Northern Ireland since 1970 it is a tribute to the party that it has retained this level of support. It is drawn mainly from the middle and upper socioeconomic groups, particularly in the Greater Belfast area. Its ability to attract Catholic voters indicates that there are members of this community who are in favour of the maintenance of the Union. They could not support the other unionist parties, because these parties were identified with sectarianism.

The Alliance Party favours a Northern Ireland solution, based on power-sharing. It has been prepared to work with parties from both sides of the divide. It participated with the SDLP and moderate Unionists during the Power-Sharing Executive, when its leader held a Cabinet office. During the days of the Assembly it worked with the CUP and DUP. Its importance in Northern Ireland is greater than its voting strength as the Alliance Party is the furthermost point that some members of each community are prepared to move towards the other community. Its record ensures that it has a measure of trust from both sides.

Two varieties of Nationalism

The Roman Catholic minority generally supports some form of Irish Nationalism. This begins with the assertion that Northern Ireland should not be part of the United Kingdom, but united politically with the rest of Ireland. The clear implication is that the governmental arrangements for Northern Ireland are, in some measure, illegitimate and, for that reason, most Nationalists feel some degree of disaffection with the state.

This, together with their status as a permanent minority, has dominated the approach of Nationalists to politics. Many Catholics feel that they have not been treated fairly in the Northern Ireland state. For example, in Richard Rose's (1971) survey some 73 per cent of Catholics agreed with the statement that 'Catholics had been treated unfairly'. They believe that they have suffered discrimination of a political, psychological and economic nature.

These attitudes have shaped the political responses of the nationalist community. As with Unionists, there are extreme and moderate positions. Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) represent the extreme view, supporting violence as a legitimate tactic and finding expression in the various campaigns of the IRA. This approach is strongly opposed by the moderate nationalist position, represented by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

(A) Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA)

The Provisional IRA grew out of the current violence. There had been an IRA in existence since the 1920s, committed to the violent overthrow of the Northern state and the removal of the British from Ireland. As discussed in Chapter 3, by the 1950s this organisation had lost the support of most Nationalists in Northern Ireland. Republican extremism was seen by them as an irrelevance.

By way of a response, the IRA decided to take a more political approach. Dominated, at that time, by left-wingers from the Republic of Ireland, they adopted a marxist political ideology, which to many traditional Republicans sat uneasily with their Catholicism, and they decided to eschew violence. As Bishop and Mallie (1987) argue, the IRA had moved to a position such that by 1968 they had little in the way of weapons. Indeed, during the loyalist attacks on the Catholic ghettos in August 1969, they were seen by many residents as not defending their areas. As already recorded in Chapter 4, graffiti in Catholic areas declared that 'IRA = I ran away' (Arthur and Jeffrey 1988, p. 37).

As a result of this violence the more conservative elements within the IRA decided to rearm. A split took place within the movement, between those who accepted the new doctrine of marxist-inspired politics and the more traditional republicans. The former became known as the Official IRA. While they too engaged in acts of violence, eventually they declared a ceasefire and created a new political party, the Workers' Party, which is strongly anti-terrorist in philosophy, as well as being left-wing. Indeed, the Workers' Party, while attracting most of its fairly limited number of votes (about 1 to 3 per cent of those voting) from among the nationalist community, is perhaps the nationalist party closest to unionist thinking. For example, it has argued for a devolved Parliament and Government, but without the need for a power-sharing arrangement. The Workers' Party has made some strides in the Republic of Ireland, securing some seats in the Dail (Parliament). Recently it has argued the case for extradition of suspected terrorists from the Republic to Northern Ireland. The party has therefore developed in a quite radical direction since the early 1970s.

The members of the IRA who rejected the leadership broke away to form the Provisionals (or PIRA as they are frequently known). They were born out of the Catholic ghettos. While having links with southern Republicans, PIRA is essentially a northern organisation, increasingly dominated by those from the republican enclaves in Northern Ireland. There can be little doubt about the ruthlessness of the organisation, nor about its ability to sustain a long campaign.

Up until quite recently the weapons PIRA used were military and propaganda, the latter particularly in the USA. A new strategy has emerged, summed up in the phrase used by Danny Morrison, Sinn Fein Director of Publicity, at their annual conference in 1981, 'a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite rifle in the other'. In other words, in addition to the violence, the Provisionals see advantages in developing a political approach. Hence Sinn Fein, which is the political party identified with PIRA, contests elections to local councils, Westminster and the European Parliament.

This represents a major change in tactics for PIRA, since in the past it has taken the view that even to contest an election to any of the governmental institutions in either part of Ireland was to confer a legitimacy on them to which they were not entitled. The tactic has had some success. First, Gerry Adams was elected MP for West Belfast. The important point was that this demonstrated that PIRA had a significant measure of support among Catholics. Second, a number of candidates - 59 in the 1985 local government elections - were successful in securing election to various local councils. As a result the government was embarrassed and unionist disenchantment increased. Unionists fail to understand why they should be expected to work with Sinn Fein councillors, some of whom have been in prison for various terrorist offences. These feelings are increased as some Unionist councillors are targets for PIRA attack.

The new tactic also led to meetings between the leaders of Sinn Fein and the SDLP: a sign perhaps that the political approach made Republicanism slightly more respectable. Nothing came of these meetings - except the possibility that dialogue within Northern Ireland between the SDLP and Unionists was made more difficult. But they were a sign that some Sinn Fein members recognised that violence by itself was unlikely to achieve their objectives.

It should be said nevertheless that 'the Armalite and the ballot' approach has some drawbacks for the Republicans. First, there is the possibility that it will generate some tension between the politicians and the military men. This has emerged in a number of ways, with prominent Sinn Fein spokespersons being forced to condemn a number of PIRA atrocities. In the long term this might lead to a weakening of PIRA. Second, it has also led to a split within PIRA, with an older, more traditional, group of Republicans creating a new party.

Third, while the election results demonstrate that Sinn Fein and PIRA have some support, they also make perfectly clear that their views are minority ones. Even among the Catholic population in Northern Ireland they have no more than the support of about one third. Their support in elections in the Republic of Ireland show them to be a marginal party. Unlike the Workers' Party, Sinn Fein has no MPs in the Dail and seems unlikely to secure any seats in the near future. Clearly any claim from the Provisionals that they represent the people of Ireland, or even the Catholic people in the north, has no basis in fact.

(B) The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)

The more moderate nationalist position is represented by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The SDLP was founded in 1970, with support drawn from among various nationally-oriented opposition MPs at Stormont, including John Hume and Gerry Fitt, its first leader. It is the main political party in the minority community and has been the most successful to come from that community since the origins of the state.

The old Nationalist Party (see McAllister 1983, pp. 71-3) in many senses was not a political party at all. For most of its history it was not organised and did not have a set of policies beyond incantations about the dismantling of Northern Ireland. It is, of course, true that there was little incentive for it to act as a normal political party. Its role was as a permanent opposition. Up to its demise in the late 1960s, it had managed to have passed one single piece of legislation, namely the Wild Birds Act 1931.

The title of the SDLP indicates that it sees itself as a socialist party, and indeed it is a member of the Socialist International. But its social and economic policies are not especially socialist, and they indicate that it is a moderate, left-of-centre party. The other dimension of the SDLP is that it is a nationalist party, believing in the eventual unification of Ireland. But, the SDLP argues that this can only be brought about through consent - through some sort of political or constitutional action. While non-violence has been central to the SDLP's approach, it has, on occasions, adopted extra-constitutional action as a tactic. This includes withdrawing from formal political processes. For example, between July 1971 and March 1972, the various nationalist political parties withdrew from Stormont and, after the introduction of internment in August 1972, SDLP councillors withdrew from local authorities.

The combined effects of the collapse of the Power-Sharing Executive and the rise of Sinn Fein as an electoral force have had a profound effect on the SDLP. The Party has increasingly argued that a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland cannot be found if an all-Ireland dimension is excluded. There have been signs that this view has found increasing favour within the Party. For example, having participated in the Power-Sharing Executive in 1972, ten years later it boycotted the Assembly.

Its developing concern with Irish nationalism led to the establishment of the New Ireland Forum., the purpose of which was to redefine Irish nationalism in the light of contemporary events and attitudes. The Forum involved the SDLP and the three main parties in the Republic. Its Report, published in May 1984, put forward a number of models through which Irish unity could be achieved. But it emphasised that such unity could only be achieved through consent.

The Forum Report was one of the contributory factors to the creation in 1985 of the Anglo-lrish Agreement, which was received by the SDLP as a vindication of their position. John Hume, leader of the SDLP, is widely regarded as one of the leading architects of the Agreement. The Party took credit among the nationalist community for its signing and used it in its competition with Sinn Fein for the nationalist vote. While there have been complaints among SDLP members that it has not led to all the changes that they anticipated, by and large they are still the strongest supporters of the pact.

Conclusion: intra-communal party competition

These, then, are the main party-political actors within Northern Ireland. The principal changes that have occurred in the last twenty years have been first the break-up of the Unionist Party, a break-up that has stabilised around three parties, a moderate Alliance Party, and the CUP and DUP; and second the emergence of two organised nationalist/republican parties.

Essentially, party competition has been intra-communal, with the CUP and DUP fighting for the unionist vote and the SDLP and Sinn Fein for votes among the minority community. The Alliance Party, and other bi-confessional parties, are still relatively marginalised, although assisted by the proportional representation system of voting that is used in Northern Ireland for local government European elections and such other elections as are held, apart from those for Westminster.

It is unlikely that this party structure will alter in the foresee- able future. The present parties seem likely to continue to be the principal political actors, and the next chapter examines their impact on the policy-making process.



CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.


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