A bitter consensus

Because the violence is over, Northern Irish voters feel free to back the hardliners
June 18, 2005
The 2005 election in Northern Ireland has wiped out the centre ground. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist party trounced the Ulster Unionists, who had dominated the politics of the province since 1920. When the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998, supported by a narrow majority of unionists, the UUP held ten of the 18 Westminster seats allotted to Northern Ireland, while the DUP held two. Today, the DUP has nine MPs while the UUP has just one.

Every other vehicle of electoral moderation on the Protestant side seems equally stalled or bust: the moderate Alliance party barely made a showing at the polls; the Progressive Unionist party, which offered crucial loyalist support to the Good Friday agreement, didn't even stand a candidate; and the Ulster Democratic party, which had represented the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association and also backed Trimble against Paisley's rejectionism, disbanded in 2001.

Polarisation is almost as sharp on the other side of Northern Ireland's divide. There was a time, during the early 1980s, at the height of the IRA's campaign of violence, when the advance of Sinn Féin to a mere 10 per cent of the Catholic vote north of the Irish border used to alarm the southern government about the prospects for militant republicanism on the island. Today, by comparison, the fact that the SDLP held on to a bare three seats in the Commons alongside the five which fell to Sinn Féin gives the Dublin government grounds for comfort. Still, there can be no doubting the trend. After the next British election, Sinn Féin could win all the old SDLP seats. At the same time, in the south of Ireland, Sinn Féin may in due course hold the balance of power in the Irish parliament. With such possibilities ahead, Sinn Féin is not disposed to find common cause with its unionist enemies in Northern Ireland. And the IRA itself has no pressing motive to clarify its ultimate intentions. Under these circumstances, it will be hard for the UUP to claw back the support it has lost to the DUP, which at least promises to hate republicans with a lot more vehemence than the UUP.

So the politics of the province is left in the hands of the most determined unionist critics of the Good Friday agreement together with a triumphant Sinn Féin, which remains unchastened by its failure, over a period of seven years, to do credible political business with its more moderate unionist opponents and which seems to have suffered no loss of support following the murder of Robert McCartney. What possible hope can there be for a general agreement now? Sinn Féin's brand of republicanism has failed to inspire any trust among unionist voters, leaving them to guess dispiritedly about the malign intentions of a Catholic electorate that granted them this power.

And yet it remains true that the situation is hardly about to descend into all-out conflict. Sinn Féin may still not feel disposed to bind itself to a strict constitutional settlement, but neither is the IRA inclined to relaunch a concerted campaign of terror. At the same time, while the DUP presents itself as a hardline opponent of the Good Friday agreement, it has accepted its fundamental provisions, including power-sharing arrangements within Northern Ireland and institutionalised co-operation between north and south. Any consensus that could possibly emerge in the near future is likely to be of the unlovely, bitter kind. But faint signs of even the most begrudging constitutional consensus are still to be preferred to the political and paramilitary rage which dominated the 1970s and 1980s.

Paradoxically, it is because the desire for a viable political process is now so entrenched on either side, while the thought of a return to full-scale violence inspires dread in each community, that both sets of voters have felt free to abandon the centre and back those they think will serve their interests best in the hard bargaining ahead.