Electoral Pacts: Just a Sectarian Headcount?

Have we lost a sense of perspective on the meaning of sectarianism? Both an electoral pact between the DUP and UUP and a students’ union referendum on a United Ireland have been labelled sectarian in recent days. It seems that increasingly entirely legitimate political actions by Nationalists and Unionists are written off as sectarian. Is this effectively a smear that runs counter to democratic freedom or a fair characterisation of campaigns of self-interest that serve only to divide and conquer in a Green versus Orange smash and grab?

The idea that it is sectarian for Unionists to identify with other Unionists, with whom they share common ideas, is irrational. Nationalism and Unionism centred on opposing constitutional beliefs are valid positions and there must be freedom for their expression. This is a purely political endeavour, despite its appearance due to our divided society.

Taking another example, QUB Sinn Fein are totally entitled to pursue their referendum for a United Ireland. One could argue that it may lead to division and tensions between students and on the whole it would be better for the “greater good” to let the issue lie but that decision is theirs to make.

Furthermore these issues have nothing to do with religion. We should differentiate between constitutional politics and religion rather than assume they are inseparable. Claiming such votes are sectarian head counts denies the legitimacy of holding a Nationalist or Unionist constitutional position and ignores the fact there are exceptions to the rule, albeit a minority.

A pact does not prevent voters from choosing who represents them. It does not discriminate against, in Northern Ireland’s case, the “other side” and there is nothing unethical about it. Of course a Unionist pact favours a Unionist candidate being elected but there is no negative impact on the electoral potential of those outside of it.

Is there an argument that it is sectarian to put constitutional issues above all others? I’m open to debate on this. However I would still be reluctant to go so far as to call it sectarian. At the very centre of Nationalist and Unionist politics is the belief that a United Ireland or maintaining the Union are fundamental to our governance. Is it wrong for that to supersede issues such as economics, health or social issues? For parties that identify first and foremost as Nationalist or Unionist, I believe the answer would have to be no.

While pacts may not be sectarian, they certainly limit voters’ choice. It must also be demoralising for those in the local party associations whose hard work is not rewarded by the opportunity to contest an election. Beyond that there is no guarantee that a pact results in a higher vote for the single candidate with turnout often dropping. There have to be questions about the wisdom of pacts for long term growth.

It is essential that we do not lose the weight of meaning conveyed by the word sectarianism through overuse and particularly misuse. Tolerance requires respect for differing constitutional ideas not just in theory but also when those ideas are put into action. Ultimately, we should not automatically project perceived religious divisions between sections of our communities onto political principles.

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  • Reader

    “It is a shame (and I suspect we agree) that the agreement was not honoured.”
    We agree. It’s maybe even more annoying to me as this shower of shameless idiots would claim to represent unionism.
    “but tokenism from nationalists is a lot better than what’s on offer from unionists”
    Again, we agree. I called it “keeping up appearances”

  • Bryan Magee

    “You are right that the mayoral posts are tokenism, but tokenism from nationalists is a lot better than what’s on offer from unionists. As far as I recall there is one single occasion in the entire history of this state when unionists have voluntarily voted for a nationalist mayor.”

    Was that in Ballymena when they elected PJ McAvoy?

  • Paddy Reilly

    The issue of naming public spaces after insurgents does not
    arise in Derry, because there is a SDLP majority, which does not identify with insurgents.

    In Newry, where the PUL presence stands at less than 8%, I don’t see how things could go any other way.

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “My point is that both constitutional positions are sectarian in the sense that they are sectional and not national.”

    I think I’m using the word ‘sectarian’ in a narrower sense. Under your wider understanding of the word would the difference between labour and conservative supporters in GB be counted a sectarian? If so then the way you are using it is far wider that the way I use it.

    While republicans want one thing unionists want the opposite, in my narrower understanding of the term, this doesn’t necessarily have to be sectarian. I equate sectarianism in NI with nationalism. Most unionists are really British nationalists or some kind of Ulster nationalist. Similarly most republicans are Irish nationalists. And for both ‘nation’ concerns blood and ancestry.

    Disagreeing about the constitutional question doesn’t make people sectarian. But if their reason for holding a particular position on the constitutional question is simply their national identity then that person is sectarian. So under this understanding of sectarian you could have non-sectarian forms of republicanism and unionism. NI21 would be an example of the latter. I cant think of a version of the former.

    Electoral pacts do not help maintain the union. They are therefore not motivated by genuine constitutional concerns. They are simply attempts by nationalistic protestants to keep Irish nationalist out of office i.e. they are motivated by purely sectarian concerns.

  • tmitch57

    “Under your wider understanding of the word would the difference between
    labour and conservative supporters in GB be counted a sectarian”

    Bitter Green, In British-descended countries and in Britain itself with plurality franchise systems the parties tend to make their appeals national in nature so as to win over the floating vote, even as they try to shore up their ideological bases with sectarian appeals. By contrast, in countries with PR voting systems the appeals tend to be more narrow-cast with parties focusing on niche segments of the electorate. Because of the ethno-religious/constitutional division in NI, a form of PR franchise is more appropriate for here than it would be for Britain, Canada, or the U.S.

    “Disagreeing about the constitutional question doesn’t make people
    sectarian. But if their reason for holding a particular position on the
    constitutional question is simply their national identity then that
    person is sectarian. So under this understanding of sectarian you could
    have non-sectarian forms of republicanism and unionism.”

    I agree that most unionists are in fact Ulster nationalists. I think the Tories are a better example of non-sectarian unionists than NI21, particularly since the latter are now probably defunct. I’m not surprised that you can’t think of an example of non-sectarian republicanism because in NI republicanism is really about identity politics and nursing an ethnic grievance.

    “Electoral pacts do not help maintain the union. They are therefore not
    motivated by genuine constitutional concerns. They are simply attempts
    by nationalistic protestants to keep Irish nationalist out of office
    i.e. they are motivated by purely sectarian concerns.”

    You write as if electoral pacts were a unionist monopoly–they aren’t. As far back as the Hunger Strikes the SDLP stood aside in Fermanagh and S. Tyrone to keep the seat nationalist. If the SDLP is less inclined to engage in electoral pacts now, it is because it has seen that it has been ill served by them. If the larger parties (SF and the DUP) can successfully play the blame game by blaming the smaller parties in their ethno-religious sectors for not standing aside and splitting the vote, then they will do so. Mike Nesbitt probably does not want to be the butt of the accusation that his party split the vote. With the UUP in its present fragile condition this accusation could be fatal to it.

  • barnshee

    “Waiting for Catholics to outbreed Protestants will take forever

    No, it will take 26 months.”

    Basing the hope of political; “progress” on incontinent individuals who cannot keep their zips up and/or their knickers on is hardly laying a sound basis for an organised society

  • Paddy Reilly

    Majoritarianism failed when the unionists tried it. Majoritarianism will also fail if republicans try it.

    No, majoritarianism worked perfectly in places such as North Antrim and North Down, where Unionists are a clear and overwhelming majority. Where the Orange State came acropper was in places such as Derry, Fermanagh and Newry, where Unionists are a minority, and what was being imposed was actually minority rule. The man in the street has a very localised view of who the majority are, and is not fooled by imaginary lines waltzing across the face of Ireland.

    So by imposing your own letsgetalongerism on society, you risk producing a solution which is equally inconvenient to both sides.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Personally I don’t see Nationalism and Unionism as solely for one set of people depending on what street they were born in

    Okay then.

    How many of the nationalists who are proposing this referendum are open to being persuaded that there may be merits in staying with the UK ?

    How many of the non-nationalists who participate in the debate are likely to be persuaded to support a united Ireland ?

    In order to have a debate you have to have participants who are open to having their mind changed. Otherwise it’s just a series of people making declarations about their entrenched positions. Which, as you apparently have not noticed, is how almost a century of debate about partition has basically been conducted. As such I have no idea where your optimism that this could be a genuine debate actually comes from.

    Like flags there are many things best dealt with at a higher level but when that isn’t possible then people have to learn to respect democracy.

    This appeal to populism is cheap and makes no sense. As I have already explained to you at length (you are apparently not listening – an interesting characteristic of a person calling for an open debate) democracy is about making decisions in an inclusive way. No decisions will be made by this referendum. Nobody will change their view on partition. All that will happen is that a group of people at QUB will feel even more excluded than they are already. Democracy isn’t supposed to do that.

  • Comrade Stalin

    How much money do you want to bet that following the debate, the next poll will show that those statistics are substantially unchanged ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    A rather significant problem is that the SDLP are increasingly unrepresentative of nationalist thinking.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think that was it.

  • Well if they can learn to do it without killing each other then at least that’s a step up from the past. Perhaps nobody will change their tune but maybe, just maybe having to think about how to promote their own beliefs, some students might learn to challenge their own and even consider others.

    What does making decisions in an inclusive way look like on the ground?

    Btw I appreciate your continued engagement and hearing your views

  • Paddy Reilly

    Not in Derry; not in South Down; not in South Belfast.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Well if they can learn to do it without killing each other then at least that’s a step up from the past

    Thank you very much, but we’ve been capable of doing that for quite some time now. I appreciate that it may not seem that way to the 19-year-olds coming up from Tyrone and Fermanagh who comprise part of the QUBSU Sinn Féin association.

    t maybe, just maybe having to think about how to promote their own beliefs, some students might learn to challenge their own and even consider others.

    Then how about setting up a workshop or a group where people from diverse backgrounds discuss not the question, but how the question should be discussed ? A kind of meta-debate.

    That’s what a person serious about advancing the debate on this issue would do. But like I said, SF are not serious on advancing the debate; they’re about erecting an invisible nationalist fence around the University area.

    What does making decisions in an inclusive way look like on the ground?

    In our case it is respecting that there are two very large minorities with diametrically opposed views on several issues, including the constitution. These views are not likely to be resolved in a hurry, and especially not by taking a headcount among a pre-selected electorate.

    This country has real problems. SF keep saying, Father Ted style, “is there anything to be said for another poll on partition?” when we should all be focusing on actual solutions.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Why do I get to be the one whose job it is to persuade unionists of reality ?

  • Comrade Stalin

    That does not refute the point. SF have considerably more votes and double the seats of the SDLP in the Assembly.

    And we’ll soon see how that all works out in South Belfast if Máirtín Ó Muilleoir runs (although my guess is that SF will end up pulling out at the last moment).

  • Robin Keogh

    I dont accept that you can credibly state that with any certainty.

  • You’ve told me how it won’t be solved, you haven’t outlined what that looks like. I would very much like to hear how that plays out.