Unionism: from factionalism to consolidation…

Chris Farrington looks at from the recent changes in Unionist party politics. He suggests underneath the shift from the UUP to DUP there may another deeper shift from “ethno-national to median voter party competition?” He notes that the “Unionist party system is by and large more fragmented that the nationalist party system”, at least since about 1972. There is also a lot more dynamism in the changes. This he argues is not directly to do with the introduction of STV, but internal factionalisation. He also notes that trend has been replaced by one of consolidation in recent years.He argues there may be several reasons for that: primarily that the Belfast Agreement actually takes away a lot of the policy choices facing unionism, and thereby giving less reason to fragment.

In taking some selectiveed readings from the NILT survey, he notes that despite some hardening of unionist opinion in 1999-2000, between then and 2003 there is no further hardening of Unionist opinion.

In effect, Unionist parties no longer compete over ethnic identity. He argues that the Agreement introduced a policy dimension to politics in Northern Ireland. Far from the interpretation in the media that the public has made the decision to plump for the extremes, the extremes have plumped for moderation.

The DUP’s election slogan in 2003: Time for a fair deal hints that even back then they were interested in a ‘fair deal’ and not ‘no deal’.

And there were what may have been decisive ‘push’ and pull factors. Failure to gain decommissioning, and the enforcement of policing changes, argued for a ‘push away’ from the UUP. But also since the Belfast Agreement voters are also now ‘pulled towards’ parties that can offer rational policy choices.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty