Narrow middle ground

Henry McDonald paints a grizzly picture of the path the UUP appears to have chosen, suggesting that not only is it prejudicial to their own success, but that it can only weaken the position of their closest allies in the peace process, the moderate nationalist SDLP:

“Mark Durkan looked visibly drained by the news from the Ulster Unionist Council meeting. He no doubt understands even if the unionists don’t, that their threat to pull power sharing down only strengthens Sinn Fein’s hand.”

Whether McDonald is right or not, depends on how you interpret the current movement within Unionism away from the centre ground. In most western societies, which politically run in a continuum from Left to Right, this would be disastrous. Two of the most successful British PM’s of recent times, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, made directly for the middle ground, took possession of it, and locked their opponents out. But, of course, as Natalie Solent points out, Northern Ireland is different!

Margery McMahon, in her recently published Government and Politics in Northern Ireland, suggests that the very the narrowness of this middle ground is the primary distinguishing mark of NI politics. The parties in Northern Ireland effectively operate in two hermetically sealed arenas; Nationalist/Catholic and Unionist/protestant. In McMahon’s reckoning the centre ground too is separate from these either of these two.

The Belfast Agreement, did not in the first place seek to change this political fact of life, rather it sought to embrace it. All but two parties, Alliance and the Women’s Coalition, have designated themselves to be either Unionist or Nationalist. The reasoning; to ensure all legislation passed within the Assembly carries majorities on either side of the ‘barrier’.

It has been, in the short term at least, successful. There is local democracy in Northern Ireland. And, importantly, no one really wants it to fail.

But this split, in what is technically a single polity, means that no one has managed to access enough of the centre ground to build a consistent powerbase from which to operate effectively. So for most ambitious NI politicians the best route to power currently lies in consolidating at the extremes. Accordingly Sinn Fein and the DUP are both currently enjoying unprecedented increases in their popularity, and we see the process within the UUP that Henry McDonald so fears.

It is unlikely that the middle ground will ever assert its latent power unless substantial progress is made in removing this ‘hermetic seal’. However, whilst the principle of parallel consent remains intact, no single faction or party can run away with ALL the power. They are forced by the system to work together and talk together, and informally at least, create alliances of interest on matters of mundane political importance.

In the medium to long term, despite current gloom, it is hard to see how such a seal can be maintained. But for now the outlook is not rosy.