Anna Lo, and the Myth that Northern Ireland Politics is about the Border

Cross-posted at Slugger O’Toole

I very much doubt Anna Lo’s Irish News interview was in the Alliance Party’s 2014 elections gameplan. While almost all members of the party will remain loyal to her in public, I have equally little doubt that a number are privately fuming. Even some of them will have little problem with what she said, rather with its timing two months before local elections and little over a year before Naomi Long has to defend East Belfast. Others will regard it as a genuinely positive step, creating space for Alliance to expand beyond Belfast suburbia.

All political parties have internal ideological faultlines. Nearly twenty years ago, Nicholas Whyte identified Alliance’s primary faultline as being between the Liberal Unionists and the Liberal Liberals. I think that was spot on back then, although there were always a few Liberal Nationalists in Alliance – remember that one of Alliance’s first Stormont representatives was the Tyrone Nationalist MP Tom Gormley.

That number has unquestionably grown over the past decade, as two issues have ceased to be live political subjects. Firstly, and ironically, the border is a dead issue for the time being – Northern Ireland is unlikely to leave the Union in the next generation, as Lo herself acknowledged, and both Nationalist parties are signed up to the Principle of Consent, backed by almost universal support from Nationalists in the 1998 Referendum. Secondly, core areas of historic Nationalist grievance – housing, employment discrimination and differential education funding – have been dealt with and receded from public consciousness even as significant communal socio-economic differentials remain.

David Ford’s view that Northern Ireland is better off in the Union reflects the view of a majority of the party’s membership; some of those would describe themselves as proud to be British, for others it’s simply a matter of practicalities. A much smaller number would vote for a United Ireland in a border poll and third group, somewhere in size between the definitely pro-Union and pro-Unity blocs, is genuinely agnostic. I can’t think of any member of Alliance who believes that Northern Ireland’s deepest problems would be solved by getting rid of the border. I can’t think of any Alliance member born in Northern Ireland who doesn’t consider themselves Irish – part of Alliance’s core constituency is that bit of Northern Irish society which thinks of itself as quite definitely Irish and British. And, here’s the bit where people outside Alliance won’t believe me: I can’t remember any of this ever being a problem within the Party. Alliance has spent too long hiding its internal diversity.

While the timing of Lo’s comments is arguably inopportune – and the only honest answer to whether they will damage Alliance electorally is “we’ll see soon enough” – the genie is now out of the bottle, and David Ford’s News Letter interview was the first response to a reality which has long existed but has only now been publicly acknowledged. Alliance is a cross-community party, whose core objective is to ameliorate and ultimately end Northern Ireland’s status as a deeply divided society, rather than to maintain the Union. Alliance’s central constitutional tenet is the Principle of Consent rather than a particular outcome on sovereignty.

All this begs another question which isn’t being asked. What are the other main Northern Ireland political parties actually there for? Nominally, both Unionist parties’ cardinal objective is to maintain the Union, while the SDLP and especially Sinn Féin exist primarily to end the Union and remove the border. I think it’s important to spell the obvious out, because judged on how successful they are in achieving their primary objectives, all four of those parties are abject failures.

Over the 92 years of Northern Ireland’s existence, how many people who had hitherto been Nationalists had been persuaded that they were better off in the Union by the political representatives of Unionism? I rest my case.

The performance of Nationalist parties in persuading Prods of the benefits of a United Ireland is even more abject – they can’t even persuade Nationalists to back the idea. In every piece of opinion research ever carried out, significant number SDLP and Sinn Féin say they’ll vote for the Union in a border poll.

Not only that, but Nationalist parties have failed to take a single concrete step towards making the island of Ireland function as a more coherent economic, political or cultural unit. Cross-border bodies with executive powers have been in operation for 12 of the past 16 years. It’s difficult to think of anything important that’s happened as a result. Cross-border food safety adverts don’t count as important.

Cross-border bodies were flagged up by Nationalists as a major gain from the Good Friday Agreement and were long feared by Unionists. They have turned out to be a major damp squib. Ironically, the most significant use of cross-border Ministerial relationships has probably emerged from David Ford’s tenure as Minister of Justice.

The post-GFA period has seen a steady increase in disinterest towards the North, and even fear of it, in the Republic. It is jarring to encounter Dubs visiting Belfast referring who how things work ‘in Ireland’. Sinn Féin supporters will point to their emergence as a real electoral presence in the Republic, but that is a double-edged sword: the party’s higher profile has coincided with a period when they are heavily invested in trying to legitimise the IRA’s war, reinforcing the perception of Northern Ireland as somewhere scary and foreign. Despite the most favourable circumstances imaginable for a breakthrough, Sinn Féin’s support seems to have plateaued at a level far short of that needed to put the North on the Republic’s political agenda.

Political Nationalism’s attempts to create the conditions for national unity seems to be confined to councils putting up bilingual signage and taking down flags.

Meanwhile, Unionism is equally mired in issues around the public expressions of identity. Outside an NI21 experiment which may yet be stillborn, Unionist politicians still universally fear being cast as Lundies. Increasingly, the Union is dependent on the votes of people who don’t see themselves as British and lean towards Irishness culturally. Unionist politicians seem determined to alienate them. There is no display of misbehaviour at a Loyal Orders or band parade, for example, so childish or obnoxious that a Unionist politician will criticise it.

Unionism, by definition, needs Northern Ireland to work. It therefore needs devolution to work, which it clearly isn’t, and it needs normality. 2014 Northern Ireland probably has no greater symbol of its abnormality than Camp Twaddell. Camp Twaddell is all about displaying Loyalist paramilitary power, and Unionist politicians remain committed to working constructively with Loyalist paramilitaries on issues of mutual concern. Northern Ireland isn’t an integral part of the Union, but a peripheral basket-case where gun-toting hoodlums are cow-towed to by politicians in a way that would have embarrassed Bettino Craxi and simply would not be tolerated in any part of Great Britain.

The reality is that Northern Ireland politics isn’t about the border at all. Every piece of opinion research ever carried out in Northern Ireland has found significant numbers of SDLP and Sinn Féin voters in favour of the constitutional status quo. Why do they vote for Nationalist parties? Because they’re well aware that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not going to change soon, and they are interested either in advancing the Nationalist community’s position within NI or simply find political Unionism hostile and sectarian.

The four traditional main parties exist not to advance a particular constitutional position but to defend communal interests. With the honourable exception of the SDLP, they are also mired to the oxters in paramilitarism past and/or present. All four will alienate potential supporters for their preferred constitutional position for the sake of looking macho on identity issues. Northern Ireland’s politics aren’t about the Union and the border, for these will likely be with us for most people living’s lifetimes, but tribalism.

The only serious threat to the Union is the tribalism of Unionist politics, a tribalism so toxic that otherwise law-abiding men and women will work closely with gangsters when the tribe’s symbols of identity are perceived to be under threat.

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