The Election Debates and the Northern Ireland ‘Difference’

Nick Robinson: inclusion of NI politicians in the election debates a step too far?  Pic: Tom Page
Nick Robinson: inclusion of NI politicians in the election debates a step too far? Pic: Tom Page

Northern Ireland is politically different from the rest of the UK, according to the BBC’s Nick Robinson. That’s why, he argued this morning on the Today Programme, broadcasters are confused by the Prime Minister’s insistence that if the Scots/Welsh Nats are including in the proposed television election debates, Northern Irish parties should be included too. Northern Ireland has always been separated from GB at election time, he argued.

This ‘difference’ argument is one that’s used a lot by politicians and pundits who would prefer the convenience of ignoring Northern Ireland in the context of a UK general election.  Air time for Northern Ireland candidates means less time to discuss much more interesting issues facing the GB electorate.

There is, of course, good reason for excluding and ignoring the NI parties if one lives in Britain. None of the Northern Ireland parties competes for votes with the national parties. Political parties here merely compete with other local parties that have no aspiration to govern the UK.  Ours are the pygmy parties of parochialism.

However, that’s not exactly the case. For one thing, it appears almost certain that no one political party will win an overall majority in the upcoming UK general election – thereby making the DUP important. For another, it’s also the case that some local parties claim to be manifestations of sister parties in GB.

John Alderdice, now Baron Alderdice, is the Alliance Party’s former leader and now sits as a Liberal Democrat Peer in the House of Lords. He is also the former President of Liberal International. David Trimble, former leader of the UUP, is now a Conservative Peer. And, of course, when men and women from Northern Ireland relocate to Great Britain, and get involved in politics, they find a home very easily in the GB party-political system. Belfast man Brian Mawhinney was a Conservative MP from 1979 to 2005 and was in a Conservative Cabinet from 1994 to 1997. There are many Northern Irish (and Irish) men and women in local, devolved and national party politics across the UK.

Therefore the reason we are considered different is nothing whatsoever to do with our ability to participate in political discussions that relate to UK-wide issues (when our people are resident elsewhere in the UK). Rather, it’s much more to do with our ridiculous and pointless party-political system that is defined and underwritten by religion and so-called cultural identity.

While the Alliance Party claims to be the manifestation of the Lib Dems in Northern Ireland – it clearly isn’t. Instead it obsesses about ‘shared future’ arguments and the institutional embedding of tribalism. The so-called Unionist party spokespeople quickly get out of their ideological depth if the debate gets too far beyond the standard frame of reference for political discussions here: ‘them and us’. Sinn Fein’s obsession is perpetuating debates around the trivial: the protection of the Irish language (a language most of their supporters ignore); the flying of flags; blaming the Brits for everything. So, yes, our politics are different, and not in a good way.

But should the DUP and Sinn Fein be included in the debates? If they are, the debates will be even more unmanageable and absurd. If Sinn Fein is included their appointed debater might show-up for the debate but will have no plans to take his or her seat on the Westminster benches, if elected. Meanwhile the DUP’s inclusion may confuse many in GB who had no idea that Northern Ireland was part of the UK.

Cameron’s reason for suggesting that NI should be represented is, no doubt, the same reason as he had suggested that the Greens be included. It’s a wrecking tactic. And there’s no better way to wreck a debate than to have those crazies involved.

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Free market libertarian. Businessman. Small government advocate. Former Vice-Chair, Conservative Party in NI. Fellow, Institute of Economic Affairs. Former Regional Chair, Business for Britain (the business voice of VoteLeave).