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The changing politics of Northern Ireland

January 24th, 2016

Alastair Meeks on the unknown First Minister

Part of the United Kingdom got a new leader earlier this month.  You probably missed this: most people did.  Following the usual tortuous process that its politics always seems to entail, Northern Ireland now has a new First Minister.  Arlene Foster took over as First Minister (the first woman to hold that role in Northern Ireland) on 11 January 2016.  She is also the first female leader of the DUP.  Perhaps it is a sign of our political progress that neither of these facts was thought worthy of very much comment.  However, with a majority of only 12, the DUP could become critical to the ability of the government to function, so we must pay close attention to them and their choice of leader.

Arlene Foster takes charge at a time when Northern Ireland’s politics are in flux and after a year where the DUP’s strategic approaches on at least three fronts have suffered major setbacks.   With a Northern Ireland Assembly election in May, she is not short of challenges.

Outside Northern Ireland, Northern Irish politics seems to be comprised of sectarian bickering, leftovers from past paramilitary activity, marches and flags, Irish language in schools and gay cakes.  All this has its place; indeed, Arlene Foster has made an early start by indicating that she won’t be attending the Easter 1916 commemorations and claims not to have been invited yet to attend any GAA sporting events.

Yet Northern Ireland has the same challenges on the economy, housing, schools, health and suchlike as anywhere else.  These do not get enough attention within Northern Ireland, never mind elsewhere.  Northern Ireland is about the same area as Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire combined, but with only 60% of the population of those four counties.  Over 30% of the population live in the Belfast metropolitan area.  Beyond that, there are few big towns and a lot of empty space.  So Northern Ireland has all the problems that you expect to find in a large city and alongside those the full set of problems of very remote rural communities. Spending per head on alcohol, narcotics and tobacco is the highest in the UK, belying the province’s God-fearing reputation.

26% of the working population are in public sector employment of one type or another. While unemployment is low, more than one in eight is claiming disability-related benefits and nearly 40% of the population are claiming one form of benefit or another: in some wards of Belfast this figure rises to more than 60%.  It has been hit particularly hard by the downturn: household incomes are still below their pre-recession levels and are the lowest in the UK.  Similarly, average house prices are still over 40% off their peak (and almost exactly half the average price in England), though they are rising at present.  So Northern Ireland has much more to worry about than whether Orangemen should be marching down streets with Gaelic signage.

The DUP were among the many losers at the general election last year.  Northern Ireland was given three years’ grace before it was required to implement cuts but by 2014 its executive was playing for time, hoping for an inconclusive result in the general election to enable the Northern Irish MPs to play the two main parties off against each other for more money.  The executive’s prayers were not met and now Northern Ireland must deal with the consequences.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was an unmitigated disaster for the DUP.  As he is a long term supporter of a united Ireland and not noticeably troubled in the past by the idea of force being used to secure it, a Labour government inspired by his ideas would be a bitter enemy.  This means that the DUP are unable to perform their usual balancing act between the two main parties: everyone knows that when the chips are down the DUP will prefer the Conservatives.  This in turn means that they lack their usual leverage in Westminster.  Moreover, with few believing that Labour stand any chance of gaining power for the foreseeable future, the DUP’s bargaining power looks likely to be in abeyance for years to come.

Adding to the DUP’s annus horribilis was the completion of the SNP’s hegemony in Scotland.  Scottish independence would throw the position of Northern Ireland within the residual United Kingdom into serious question.  This throws unionists still more firmly behind the Conservatives at the UK level.

Now the DUP face an election where for the first time in a decade they do not necessarily epitomise unionist instincts.  The UUP have fought an effective insurgent campaign over the last year, stealing a march on the DUP over the revelations about the IRA’s continuing activity by withdrawing from the power-sharing executive.  Party opinion polling in Northern Ireland is rare but there is limited polling evidence that unionist voters strongly approve of the UUP’s handling of this.  Having won two seats at the general election last year (one following an electoral pact with the DUP, one won from the DUP), the UUP will be looking to make further gains at Stormont.

With one proviso, the system favours insurgents.  Unlike the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Irish Assembly is elected by single transferable vote.  The 18 Northern Irish Westminster constituencies are used, each electing six MLAs.  Accordingly, the concept of a wasted vote does not apply.

The proviso relates to the mechanics of power-sharing.  In order to ensure cross-community backing, the allocation of ministerial roles is tightly controlled.  The First Minister and deputy First Minister are nominated by the largest and second largest political parties respectively.  Departmental ministers, with the exception of the Minister of Justice, are nominated by the political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, according to their share of seats in the Assembly (calculated using the d’Hondt system).  The Minister of Justice is appointed following a cross-community vote in the Assembly.  What this means is that unionist voters can be reluctant to experiment, for fear of giving the nationalist parties greater weight than they would otherwise have got when the Cabinet seats come to be shared out or Sinn Fein might even take the First Minister role.

This particularly hampers cross-community parties like the Alliance but this fear can now be used by the DUP against the UUP also.  In theory, an improvement in the UUP seat count could imperil the unionist hold on the role of First Minister: if Sinn Fein stood still in May and the UUP took 10 seats off the DUP, Sinn Fein would have 29 seats, the DUP would have 28 seats and the UUP would have 26 seats.  In practice, the UUP are unlikely to make anything like that much progress.  That probably won’t stop the DUP using the possibility as a way of scaring unionist voters back into line.

So the Assembly election seems likely to produce a broadly similar result to last time – maybe we’ll see a few more UUP seats at the DUP’s expense, but there’s no hint of any major changes.  With the DUP lacking bargaining power with the UK government for the foreseeable future (and with Sinn Fein having a vested interest in not making life more difficult for Jeremy Corbyn than it already is), Northern Ireland might at last start to focus on the normal concerns that every other government has to think about.  What’s bad for political parties isn’t always bad for the general public.

Alastair Meeks