Permanent Cantons or Effective Government?

Newton Emerson, writing in today’s Irish News, speculates on the future direction of Northern Ireland’s political spectrum:

A poll published last weekend shows Alliance overtaking the UUP for the first time, on 13 per cent compared to the UUP’s 10 per cent. The SDLP is on 9 per cent. The poll had a small sample but the trend is unmistakeable. We are now heading towards a three-party system of DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance, perhaps by the end of the decade.

Emerson goes on to view such a scenario as potentially sowing the seeds for the end to D’Hondt Stormont, as the system cannot cope with large undesignated blocks.

If that was one potential future, another was laid out in Mike Nesbitt’s Conference Speech at Titanic Belfast last Saturday:

We remain resolute in our view that the biggest single change to make Stormont a building that delivers rather than survives, is the introduction of an official opposition. Let me nail the big misconception about our view on Opposition. It’s not about the Ulster Unionist Party looking for a return to Majority Rule. I cannot see a time when Northern Ireland will not require a cross-community government. So, if we have an Official Opposition, whoever is in it, will work in opposition to a Coalition, a cross-community government made up of the largest parties of the two big blocks.

These two futures are incompatible and point in differing directions. Emerson’s future, sees the effective absorption of the smaller parties into the large parties and probably reflects the fact that there are certain ideological similarities amongst the respective parties in each bloc, with differences rooted in historical attitudes to violence and to power-sharing respectively, lines significantly blurred since 2007.

The similarities within each bloc may appear deceptively overbearing in the absence of armalites or Paisleyite rallies, at least if we choose to focus on the single issue of the constitution. However, cultural differences such as the continuing presence of religious fundamentalism within the DUP and the SDLP’s aversion to being in any sense morally identified with the actions of the provisionals, are strong impediments to a complete vacation of that political space.

The first future also overlooks that the Alliance Party are no longer professedly unionist, even in a small u socio-ecnomic sense and make great play of packaging themselves as a cross-community party. This likely limits their potential to spread beyond more urbane, liberal territory east of the Bann, particularly whilst cultural wars in the peace continue.

It also overlooks the fact that the de-toxification of Sinn Fein is far from complete, and appealing to social-democratic nationalists may involve steps unthinkable to a republican movement wedded to a culture of commemmoration and being ‘more than a party’.

Most damningly, Emerson’s future fails to identify the main danger of a completely cantonised outcome; an opposition cannot come about without parties which can offer themselves as a credible, representative alternative government.

Under a future of two ethno-nationalist parties counterbalanced by Alliance,  there is no scope for an alternative government to form whilst power-sharing remains the operative principle. Nesbitt’s recognition that no party can govern alone makes this future markedly unattractive.

It also encapsulates perfectly the danger of reducing the numbers in the Assembly before an electoral cycle with an opposition begins; it may kill the idea at birth, something which may suit the larger parties and explain the prominence of a populist ‘sash ‘n’ burn’ approach.

Nesbitt and the UUP must, along with the SDLP, seize the opportunity to win the argument for a more effective, normalised political spectrum in Northern Ireland, or face the further decline of our demos into permanent cantons.

Public ownership of the debate started by our outgoing Secretary of State would be a start. Familiar overtures will be heard, but must be ignored if the promise of 1998 for a more normal society is take another step.

The four-party system is in critical health, but its death would rob us of a better future.

  • Ben Cochrane

    The UUP will have all but disapeared by the Assembly elections in 2019 or 2020, so you needn’t worry too much about plans for Opposition. Even if there was an Official Opposition before then the UUP is not going to be big enough to play a meaningful role.


  • There will never be a three party system………..not in Newton Emersons lifetime.
    Except of course that there will be three broad philosphies…..unionism, nationalism and “the middle”.

    To take the leap of faith that the poll required is accurate……there would never be a three (political) party scenario.
    There is at the moment (at worst) a two party plus three half party systems or (at best) a two party plus two three quarter parties plus a half party.
    A political party would I reckon have to be competitive in more than half the constituencies (possibly three quarters) to be a fully fledged regional party.
    Being competitive in less than half the constituencies just doesnt cut it.

  • Mc Slaggart

    “Under a future of two ethno-nationalist parties counterbalanced by Alliance”

    It what way have Alliance acted as a counter balance? What examples can you think of?

  • Mc Slaggart

    ” a more effective, normalised political spectrum in Northern Ireland”

    What country are you using as your reference point as being normal?

  • Mc Slaggart

    “The poll had a small sample but the trend is unmistakeable”

    The funnest thing Newton Emerson has wrote to date.

  • Better Together


    If one takes a Lebanese scenario as the extreme end of the spectrum of confessional politics, we are talking about a shift in terms of identity based voting. One determined less by cultural background and more by conventional ideological identification.

    Ethnic security will dampen kulturkampf, but it won’t eradicate it completely. An opposition structure will at least shift the incentives towards more detailed policy and government, rather than ethnic horse-trading.

  • Better Together


    The need for an opposition extends beyond the interests of one particular party, it is about the quality of our democracy. Do you recognise the links between post St. Andrew’s politics at election time and structural incentives to race to the bottom and privilege a sectarian headcount?

    Similarly, I recognised the risks to the UUP/SDLP of ignoring this pressing issue. Your answer suggests that the demise of the UUP would put the issue to bed, is that an outcome you are comfortable with?

  • Mc Slaggart

    The Lebanese do it by religious communities which is not the case in NI?

    Why did you use “kulturkampf” ? What cultural struggle do you think is going on in NI?????

    Now we get to it you want an ” opposition structure “. You cannot have a “opposition structure” in a place where the political parties DUP/UUP/Conservatives become one when they think they may get an MP or run a local council. ST Patrick give us the shamrock so that we better understand the Unionist parties.

  • Henry94

    We remain resolute in our view that the biggest single change to make Stormont a building that delivers rather than survives, is the introduction of an official opposition. Let me nail the big misconception about our view on Opposition. It’s not about the Ulster Unionist Party looking for a return to Majority Rule. I cannot see a time when Northern Ireland will not require a cross-community government. So, if we have an Official Opposition, whoever is in it, will work in opposition to a Coalition, a cross-community government made up of the largest parties of the two big blocks.

    I don’t get it. If this is what Mike Nesbitt thinks should happen (and I agree entirely with him) then why not just do it? Go into opposition now. Not only is it the opportune thing but it is the right thing. The same goes for the SDLP. And while they are at it they could pledge that they will only enter government when they have the largest mandate in their own communities and only if the largest party from the other side are involved.

  • andnowwhat

    An opposition without sufficient votes to outvote the executive would be insanity. Look how things are now for goodness sake.

  • Red Lion

    What is the Alliance Party’s position on the constitutional issue??

  • Same as the Shinners and DUP, SDLP and UUP – any change is via consent. Everything else is bluster.

  • Red Lion

    But sf are clear they want UI, Dup clear they want the Union, Alliance, er, ….

  • andnowwhat

    An opposition is a party or parties, in the NI scenario, that holds the government to account and then puts themselves to the electorate a the end of the parliamentary period in the hope of becoming the next government.

    See where the idea falls down in the NI context?

    They’d be better off as unpaid krusties occupying the old Bank of Ireland building at North Street/Royal Avenue

  • PaddyReilly

    There are several reasons why Opinion Polls don’t work for Northern Ireland: the existence of marked local variations is one of them. There is every reason to suppose that the SDLP will survive in South Belfast, South Down and Derry, though it may disappear altogether in Fermanagh etc. You need a separate opinion poll for every constituency.

  • Lionel Hutz

    I can never decide whether to take Newton seriously. His comments on the minor parties are reminiscent of the kind of comment you have got on “Mock the Week” about the Lib Dems. Lazy the dismissive commentary that was just lazy.

    The other thing is that you would think to hear people that you are disenfranchised by having a the current style of government. These parties can be voted out if not enough people vote for them. The opposition structure only appears to work because one party is given the rope to hang themselves alone whilst the other lies from the gallery. The length of time it takes for an opposition to take over is just measured by the length of time it takes for people to forget how much they screwed up when last in government

  • BluesJazz

    The *real* government of NI is still Westminster. They carry the purse strings. Stormont is just Queens Students Union of 1989 pretending to be like the grown ups.

    It could be worse, like the Dail pretending the Irish republic is a sovereign state rather than a Bundesbank/IMF canton.

  • Paddy,
    Spot on !

  • IJP

    Red Lion

    When asked that question during the European Election campaign I replied:

    A generation ago the Alliance Party took the view that the best way to represent NI in its diversity was power-sharing devolution within the UK with cross-border institutions. No one has come up with any other proposal, workable on a cross-community basis, to make us change our mind and I do not envisage anyone doing so for the foreseeable future.

    No one in the party had any problem with that. Frankly, I think most people in NI would accept it as a straightforward statement of practical fact.

  • PaddyReilly

    Of course my view of Things to Come is quite different from Emerson’s. As I see it, somewhere in the middle of this decade Nationalists will begin to outnumber Unionists, at least in the second preference vote.

    After this, politics will assume a 32 County orientation. Sinn Féin already has a 26 County equivalent, (and so have the Greens) so we know where they will go; the SDLP is obviously suited to Labour. The sister party of Alliance in the Republic is Fine Gael, and I always assumed that Alliance will eventually be subsumed by it, but Alliance insiders inform me that some Alliance voters may prefer to go with Labour. As these two 26 county parties never achieve power without being in coalition, it doesn’t make a lot of difference.

    By this time the UUP will have largely been swallowed up by Alliance and the DUP, so that only leaves DUP and TUV unspoken for. Obviously these parties will persist till the very moment that partition is ended, and possibly even after, but I imagine that DUP/TUV voters, in a United Ireland, will be accounted for in a variety of different ways.

    1) There are those who will withdraw from politics altogether. I imagine the Free Presbyterians will refuse to recognise the Irish state and go the way of the Reformed Presbyterians, making voting sinful and recognising no king but Jesus, no Republic but the Senate of the Elect. Equally sects such as the Brethren and Jehovah’s Witnesses will take off, catering for the same politics free stance.
    2) There are those who will withdraw from Ireland altogether and will move to Scotland or England, by now different countries.
    3) There are those whose employment, in a United Ireland, causes them to relocate to Killarney or Kilkenny: they may remain DUP voters in their hearts, but they will be unable to elect a T.D.
    4) The fourth option is the strangest: I looked up South African history to find out what happened to the apartheid dealing National Party. First it renamed itself the New National Party: then, after getting nowhere, it joined the African National Congress! The very people it had most opposed and characterised as terrorists! Their reasoning was that they so desperately want to be in power, they are prepared to drop all other requirements in order to secure this advantage.

    Of course the DUP and TUV could just soldier on as effective Independents in a 32 county Oireachtas; but this would involve them turning into a party whose purpose was not achieving power, which is unusual in politics.

  • JR

    As others have pointed out, how would political opposition work in NI when as demonstrated recently (nelson mc causland, southern apology), the uup in opposition would vote with the DUP in government and the sdlp would vote with SF.

  • Paddy,
    That’s a very interesting theory.
    I would disagree with you on one point. I think Unionism will realign, as you suggest, but will coalesce into a single strong block in a new Ireland, probably around the DUP. As such it will exercise considerably more influence on a National level than it does currently in a UK context.
    May I, with your permission, republish that post with my own observations.

  • PaddyReilly

    Go ahead

  • alex gray

    In the midst of all this speculation don’t forget there are EVENTS. Sometimes events change everything. Also what about that recent interesting speculation that the political parties here do not represent people, only themselves and we may in future see more independents elected? That twist would also dismantle d’Hondt if it went far enough.

  • Mc Slaggart

    “Red Lion

    When asked that question during the European Election campaign I replied:

    A generation ago the Alliance Party”

    What did the Alliance party do to make their vision come true a generation ago?

  • Mc Slaggart

    Better Together:

    I posted your answer to my question up on if you have any objections to it or what I wrote I can change it if you need.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Do Alliance and Emerton demand these polls to usurp votes and elections when they say there is a definite “trend”? Didn’t a similar Belfast Telegraph poll say that Martin McGuinness would be President?

    Only 5 years ago they were too favorable to the DUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin in comparison to the votes they got.

    I do wonder if these polls are entirely politically neutral or relevant … I’m tempted to cry shenanigans here.