In Northern Ireland it is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that there are two sides to everything, and that neither side is capable of changing its mind on any substantial issue. This leads to the politics of eternal negotiation, where nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and no change can be argued on its own merits. Instead of playing the political game to find out who will win, politicians game the rulebook in order to declare that they have already won.
In an idealised democracy, battles are fought in the centre ground of the landscape. Not everyone is in the centre ground of politics of course, but there are enough swing voters that their votes are worth the effort. In Northern Ireland, the assumption is that there are no swing voters, or at least that there are insufficient numbers to make courting them worthwhile.
We can imagine the political landscape as a series of hills and valleys that signify the popularity among the electorate of particular policies, where the higher the hill the greater the potential vote. In the extremes of the Left and Right we find deep chasms where only the swivel-eyed extremists can be found. Between them lie the various hillocks of the usual party-political electorates, merging into and crossing over each other in rolling waves. But politics has more than one dimension, or two, or three. Turn at right angles to the Left/Right axis and we find new extremes and centre grounds. Turn through a different right angle and we find yet more. Every possible argument has a dimension, and every shade of opinion along that dimension has a particular level of appeal.
In Northern Ireland we don’t tend to find many people at the extreme ends of most policy arguments. Jobs, roads and schools all elicit similar responses to that of electorates across the world. But we do find significant numbers of people at the extremes of the constitutional dimension, and so the farthest reaches of the landscape are not chasms but mountains. Politicians are drawn to these distant peaks in search of electoral success, and parties find themselves trapped in the corners of the political landscape, where any significant movement away from the most extreme position will lose more votes from the edge than it will gain from the centre. Party politics is not fought on a common centre ground, but on two separate extremes, each party jockeying for position with its rivals within the same space, and shouting defiance at the the mountains on the other side of the chasm.
But this assumes that the landscape is a constant. The landscape is made up of the assumed reactions of voters to the list of possible actions of politicians, and the electorate’s opinions can change. The landscape is not set in stone. Not only does the electorate evolve through demographic change, but individual voters are responsive to argument and persuasion.
So why don’t politicians try harder to persuade? Perhaps it is because appealing to the core vote is easy, and persuading people to change is hard. Perhaps Northern Ireland is exhausted from the effort of making peace a generation ago. But the peace is unfinished and the roots of conflict have barely been touched. There is no urgency behind the long task of fixing a society that is obviously broken, but not obviously in danger of imminent collapse. By the time collapse does become imminent it may be too late to act.
Shirky’s Principle states that “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Northern Ireland’s political parties are institutions, and for the most part they have little interest in solving the fundamental problems that drive their voters into the polling booth. If politics must change in Northern Ireland, then political parties must abandon the lofty peaks of ideological purity and learn to fight in the centre ground. If a centre ground does not yet exist, it must be created.
And since the vast, isolating peaks of the landscape lie along the constitutional axis, it is on that axis that progress must be made. Next to the Himalayas of the Border, legacy and identity, what hope of gaining precious attention have the mere drumlins of jobs, roads and schools? If the constitutional issue were tackled honestly and a less fragile settlement found, there is little doubt that there would be a centre ground of politics to be fought over. Northern Ireland is not short of political opinions or shades of thought, but electoral politics remains stubbornly glued to identity.
And yet shades of identity can be found. Unionism and nationalism may appear monolithic from the outside, but there are many colours within. Between the extremes of Irish-only and British-only there are countless shades of sort-of-one-but-more-the-other, yet these rarely find overt expression in our political system.
One of the assumptions of a working democracy is that the government rules in the name of all the people, not just those who voted for it. Conversely, one of the warning signs of a failing democracy is a political system that openly serves factional interests rather than any notion of the common good, however insincere. In Northern Ireland, it is explicitly assumed that Unionist and Nationalist parties will only serve the interests of their own section of the community. Given that the memberships of the two largest parties are confessionally homogeneous, we should immediately see why political divisions persist.
And here we return to Shirky. We have institutions of government that are constructed to “solve” the problem of the sectarian divide and yet, by absolving the parties of any need to change, the institutions merely manage, and so perpetuate, that problem. Not only are the parties under no electoral pressure to find a centre ground, they are under no moral pressure either. Why pretend to represent themmuns in government when they are guaranteed to have their own people in government who will do a more authentic job? Safer to stick with your own and let themmuns worry about theirs.
Our ugly scaffolding was meant to give us the time and support we needed to build a new politics on the open ground. Instead, that scaffolding has been used to mask the lack of progress. At every setback, the politicians flee the building site and resume their war dances in the electoral safety of the mountains. The only way they can be forced to stay on the job is if the mountains are no longer safe. That means finding a constitutional centre ground and building grassroots support for it, so that the swing vote can balance the core vote. A shining city on a hill must first have a hill.
A powerful centre ground of opinion must be geographically distributed, so that it has a presence in every seat, but it must also be deep enough to make a decisive difference at the polls. It must be found on both sides of the traditional divide, and be willing to vote for whoever is best capable of delivering a shared future. A true swing voter has twice the power of a core voter, because the only sanction a core voter has is to stay at home, to abstain. A swing voter is dangerous because she is willing to vote for the other side.
There has long been a constitutional swing vote on the nationalist side. Many “nationalists” have been content to remain in the UK, while still voting for Nationalist parties to defend their interests. This swing vote overlaps to a great extent with the “Northern Irish” identity in recent surveys. The “Northern Irish” could be decisive in any border poll, but are spread too thin to make a real impact in electoral politics. If a meaningful proportion of “unionists” were to join them in the “Northern Irish” bloc, it could potentially outnumber any other single faction.
The language of defeat and victory is the language of war. Politics is compromise, and partial success. Frustration at lack of progress leads us into the language of revolution and total victory. Fear of change leads us into the language of siege and total defeat. But if it were no longer afraid, no longer frustrated, could a centre ground of opinion change the language of politics? If we had a party-agnostic swing vote could it hold power over the tribal parties and force them to change their ways?
Andrew is a native Ulsterman and adopted Galwegian. An IT manager by day and political hack by night, he has also been known to dabble in fundamental physics and musical theatre.