Election ’15: A Campaign Dominated by Moral Issues

Jim Wells. Gays and child abuse. Rathfriland lesbians. Thruples. Criminalising homosexuals. Assembly motion exposing divided parties on Same Sex marriage. Calls for a NI Same Sex marriage referendum.

We’ve hit the final weekend before polling day, and there is growing anticipation around the results in a number of local constituencies, and even greater excitement and uncertainty concerning how the chips will fall at Westminster after Thursday.

But one noticeable feature of Election 2015 in Northern Ireland has been how the election campaign has been dominated by what might be termed moral issues, as opposed to vexed disputes relating to ‘The Troubles’, peace process or constitutional and identity related themes.

That is in no way to suggest that the moral issues will act as the greatest determining factor when people choose where to place their X on Thursday. Rather, it is simply to note that these issues dominated discussions throughout the campaign in a way that was not as apparent in previous electoral contests in the state.

In any case, for the overwhelming majority of voters, the constitutional question will continue to define the parameters of our respective voting options into the forseeable future. But within that narrower voting field, moral issues are a factor which can influence the final decision as to whom to cast a vote for.

It is common for moral issues to dominate election campaigns in other democracies, and perhaps none more so than the USA- and this link illustrates the political gulf that can exists between supporters of the two main parties in the United States on some of the moral issues which are now increasingly defining much of the political agenda in Ireland and Britain.

The Jim Wells saga brought to the fore once again the DUP and political unionism’s strident moral conservative outlook on LGBT issues, which was reinforced by Peter Robinson’s BBC The View utterances in response to one of his senior party councillors, Paul McClean, expressing the opinion that homosexuality should be made illegal.

Robinson’s remarks, that he hoped people would abide by the law if that situation did arise, have brought more front page negative headlines for the DUP leader in today’s The Sunday Life, which won’t do the campaigns of Gavin Robinson nor Jonathan Bell any good, though at least Gavin should be comfortably enough ahead to not fret too much on such matters.

Incidentally, Bell can count himself lucky that his somewhat bizarre expression of concern regarding ‘thruples’, or three-person marriages, as reported by Sam McBride, did not go viral and bring yet more unwelcome attention to a party which has even managed to provoke an angry retort from Kyle Paisley, the son of the DUP founder and one time leader, Ian Paisley, over its morally conservative views.

Robinson’s U-turn on the issue of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, a policy change announced on the same The View programme, precipitated a remarkable public rebuke from a DUP party member, Michael Cameron, carried in The Newsletter, and an angry emotional response from some women who have endured the painful experience of giving birth in such tragic circumstances.

More so than any other party, the DUP are vulnerable to electoral blowback from such public utterances quite simply because the party has, in an electoral sense, managed to create such a broad coalition of support across the protestant communities in the north of Ireland.

The DUP’s electoral success, with 8 MPs and 38 MLAs, has been constructed with the benefit of not having a credible alternative unionist party to provide a challenge, either from the centre left on socio-economic issues, or from a more liberal standpoint on moral issues.

The Ulster Unionist Party stands as a type of ‘Mini-Me’ figure, mimicking DUP policy and outlook in a range of areas to the extent that unionist voters have naturally felt obliged to opt for the stronger, more authentic version of the same product when presented with a choice- and, as the outworkings of the 2015 version of the Unionist Pact demonstrate, that choice will not always even be offered, again to the benefit of the more tactically astute DUP.

The sporadic noises made to date by the smaller loyalist-aligned political parties, most notably the PUP, have yet to prove anything other than a minor irritant to the DUP, and the loyalist party’s failure to even field one candidate in this election illustrates how ill-equipped they are to mount a challenge to the DUP at this time.

Thus, the party of academic selection and low taxation will continue to sweep the board in working-class protestant communities, whilst many liberal protestants and unionists will look past their instinctive unease at the homophobic whiff emanating from the party when marking their ‘X’ on the ballot paper.

Consequently, as in the case of Sinn Fein, many DUP voters will cast their vote for DUP candidates on Thursday in spite of their policies in a wide range of areas, as opposed to because of them.

In the medium to long term, that is something that should give hope for other parties within both unionism and nationalism, but which also will continue to provide the challenge to the DUP (in particular) but also to Sinn Fein to keep the base as broad as possible, mitigating against extreme voices which alienate parts of the broader electoral base.

The moral agenda also stung the SDLP and Alliance Party. Both parties were exposed as being divided over the same sex marriage issue, divisions which led to a perfectly timed Sinn Fein Assembly motion on the issue being defeated because of the abstaining SDLP and Alliance MLAs, provoking bitter pronouncements by aggrieved party members in its aftermath.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP will jealously seek to protect their electoral dominance, and retaining their populist appeal will leave them vulnerable to parties more firmly rooted in an ideological sense to a fixed position on the political spectrum- either in the socio-economic or moral realm.

For nationalism, that will likely mean a party settling on a more conservative moral ground with a centre-right socio-economic outlook, capable of reflecting the more traditionally catholic outlook on moral issues and capitalizing on middle-class unease with Sinn Fein’s social and economic policy rhetoric.

But, for now, Sinn Fein stands apart as the only nationalist party appearing to have a sense of purpose and direction, and, coupled with their shrewd positioning on popular moral issues (see Martin McGuinness’ audible in the wake of the Wells furore, when he called for a Same Sex marriage referendum in Northern Ireland, as well as the timing of the Assembly motion on the same theme), Sinn Fein appear to be heading towards polling day without the imponderables worrying a DUP leadership that must feel like they’ve been in reactive mode throughout an election campaign that has felt like no other in Northern Irish history.