Northern Ireland elections and the political centre

(Original post here)

(Like my post the other day, and as I expect posts here to be frequently from now on, this is me thinking aloud about issues that circle around my PhD thesis so thoughts, comments and corrections are welcome)

It’s electoral systems geek Christmas right now as Northern Ireland counts its latest Assembly election. As one of the few places in the world to use STV elections and because it has both parties and voters ready to utilise the full potential of the electoral system, it’s fascinating to watch how election counts unfold and see how votes transfer between parties and candidates. (For live coverage, I recommend the Slugger O’Toole blog and Nicholas Whyte’s analysis of the constituencies and the effects of the drop in seats from 6 to 5 in each of them gives a good background)

Beyond the general geekery, one thing that has caught my attention in this election has been the potential development of a new politics of the centre in Northern Ireland. One thing I’ve been working on in my research is the question of how we define a ‘centre party’, and I’m currently looking at ideas of how the political centre can have two different meanings, depending on the political context of the times and the current situation in Northern Ireland gives an interesting illustration of that.

A lot of the theory about political parties is based on the idea of them being an expression of cleavages in society. For instance, in conventional ‘left-right’ politics, parties developed to represent the interests of workers on one side and business on the other. (This is a simplification, but I’m writing a blog post, not an entire paper) When I talk about centre parties, I’m talking about parties that instead try and sit in the middle of that cleavage as an attempt to bridge between the two sides (again, blog post not paper, but you can read my in depth thoughts on this here). This is why Northern Irish politics are interesting in this terms as not only is the main cleavage and dimension of competition a nationalist-unionist one, rather than left-right, it has a clear centre party (the Alliance Party) that intentionally places itself in the middle of that cleavage as well as two main competing parties on either side of the cleavage (Sinn Fein and the SDLP on one, the UUP and DUP on the other).

One of the key changes in Northern Irish politics since the Good Friday agreement has been the movement within each side of the cleavage away from the moderate parties. In the first post-Agreement election, the UUP and the SDLP were the two leading parties, with David Trimble and John Hume leading an all-party power-sharing administration. Since then, the DUP and Sinn Fein have supplanted their more moderate rivals, eventually leading to the position after the last election where they formed an administration between themselves, leaving the more moderate parties to go into opposition. The DUP/Sinn Fein administration collapsed in January over the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, prompting the current election, but part of the reaction to that has been the UUP and SDLP leaders both saying that they would give each other’s parties their second preferences in the vote.

This, I think, helps to illustrate the idea I’m working on of there being two separate but linked idea of the political centre and what it means to be a ‘centre party’. In conventional times, a centre party is merely one that defines itself as being in the middle of the cleavage, but in more polarised times, the conception of the centre widens to include all of those who make common cause in defence of conventional politics against the threat from extremists on either side of the cleavage. Northern Ireland makes for an interesting example of this change because of the strength of the cleavage beforehand, where there’s been very little cross-community voting but now the UUP and SDLP appear to have come to a common realisation that they have more in common with each other across the centre than they do with their rival parties from within their own community. The idea of parties uniting in a democratic centre isn’t new — it’s been a feature of countries threatened by extreme parties, and those emerging from dictatorship into democracy — but it’s interesting to see it playing out in a politics based on a different dimension of competition.

One idea I need to look into more is perhaps the difference between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ centre parties (or perhaps it’s more a difference between explicitly centre parties and those with a centrist tendency?) to look at this idea more, especially the question of when a system reaches a tipping point when competition switches from being cleavage-based to becoming about the centre vs the extreme.

And on that note, it’s time to go and see how the people of Northern Ireland have actually voted, and whether the voters have followed the party leaderships in moving towards the centre, or if they’ve just made all this speculation pointless.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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