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Brexiting Party Politics in Northern Ireland – Civil Society Alternatives

Brexiting Party Politics in Northern Ireland – Civil Society Alternatives

Cillian McGrattan (Ulster University)


The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) topped the poll in the recent Northern Ireland local government elections: 24.1%, an increase of 1% from 2014, compared with its cross-community rival Sinn Fein, which won 23.2%, a decrease of almost 1% from the last election. As Jon Tonge, author of the most recent academic book on the DUP pointed out, it ‘is the subject of never-ending criticism and yet the party keeps winning elections’.

As Tonge also commented, the figures represented a ‘good result’ for the party – beleaguered as it was with internal scandals, an increasingly toxic relationship with the Conservatives and discontent over the continued payment of Members of the Legislative Assembly despite them not doing any work for over two years. And while there was an uptick in support for smaller parties outside of the political mainstream, Northern Ireland remains characterized by a dual-party system divided along ethno-nationalist lines where voting reinforces the dominant sectarian cleavage.

In an earlier contribution to this Blog, I explained how the interminable nature of Brexit, coupled with the horrific killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry, has provided the impetus for a re-opening of inter-party talks about getting the Northern Ireland, power-sharing Assembly working again. But, as Robin Wilson has recently argued, it seems more than a little like Einstein’s (in)famous definition of madness – doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results – to reconvene talks that will address the internal workings of the Assembly and the potential for agreeing on a program of government.

Given the deep uncertainty across civil society caused by Brexit it seems remiss, if not entirely surprising, that political discussions are largely delimited to the two governments and the main political parties. These uncertainties include concerns about long-term funding for critical services such as Women’s Aid, agencies associated with aspects of child welfare provision, health care provision generally and human rights protections. The list is far from exhaustive but hopefully nonetheless indicates that the most vulnerable groups and individuals in Northern Ireland stand to be hit hardest by Brexit.


The Anti-Politics of Party Politics

Arguably, one of the key lessons of Brexit has been associated with the figurative death of party democracy. Wilson advocated borrowing from experiments with deliberative democracy to breath accountability and transparency into the body politic of Northern Ireland. The notion of citizens’ assemblies being convened to provide a way out of the Brexit debacle has been gaining traction. Wilson furthermore suggests that recent experiments both North and South of the border demonstrate the potential for deliberative democracy not only to deal with complex issues to do with social justice and constitutional politics but also to substitute for the increasing democratic deficits – electorally, policy and normative – that the North’s ethnic tribune parties have cultivated.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement firmly established party politics as the model for building peace. In an early critique of this vision, Chris Gilligan suggested that while the emphasis on political elites worked to ‘circumvent confrontation’, it had the simultaneous effect of ‘rendering people impotent’.[i]

This de-politicizing tendency has inspired an increase of antipolitical sentiment that makes its presence felt on numerous layers. For example, only around a quarter of voters trust the parties to govern – a 2016 finding by the Ulster University/Queen’s University Belfast operated Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey indicated that 23% of respondents did not support any of the parties. Devolution is broadly supported, but the Assembly does not fare well in responses: 20% of voters believe that it is ‘good value for money’.

More problematically, perhaps, are the figures relating to trust in the Assembly. The least trusting of the Assembly’s politicians are the younger and older cohorts, where the average response for the two (below) variables was 29%.:


How much do you trust the UK government to work in Northern Ireland’s best long-term interest?


18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+
Just about always 4 3 5 4 4 5
Most of the time 19 29 27 33 16 22


Although voter turnout is an unreliable indicator of apathy, nevertheless, a clear downward trend is discernible during the peace process years – albeit with an uptick in the febrile political atmosphere following the collapse of the Assembly and the Brexit debate in 2017: it ranges from 69.9% in 1998 to 52.7% in 2019. Although the turnout is relatively high in comparison to other European countries, the downward trend in a highly politicized and deeply segmented society such as Northern Ireland’s is worrying.


Broadening the Political

There is a danger that Northern Ireland will sink deeper into a kind of zombie democracy where the government is always returned and power devolves no further than the two main parties. Although non-mainstream parties made some gains in the recent local government elections, these are spread across 462 seats and 11 councils. The danger is compounded by a belief that more talks are the way forward, in the face of mounting evidence that political parties are constitutive of the real democratic and social deficits facing Northern Ireland.

Political parties have struggled to tackle issues such as abortion or gay marriage and Brexit has worked to aggravate identity-based differences. Although the priest at Lyra McKee’s funeral reprimanded political leaders, the Catholic Church has been instrumental in driving forward divided education – the main political parties seem incapable of confronting the parental choice that underpins that division through systemic self-segregation.

If party politics replicates and reinforces divisions, then Wilson is correct: It makes sense to try an alternative. The idea has a history: The 1998 Agreement envisaged a ‘Civic Forum’. This ran until an Assembly collapse in 2002; it has never been resuscitated, with the political parties preferring to develop their own bespoke links with civil society. Although there would, of course, be cost implications, reviving an open conduit for civil society would require a significant change of perspective from the parties. It is worth exploring: Such an innovation could help to alleviate the ethno-religious constraints that progressivist politicians work within. It could, for instance, consider changes that would make Northern Ireland a more inclusive society and press for change in those issues with which either the parties do not want to become entangled or, like Brexit, remain ideologically divided. It could do this without the pressure felt by politicians for re-election or without the types of choreographed carve-ups that have constituted a political party-led agreement in the past.

Northern Ireland is facing anti-political dynamics across many levels. Brexit compounds many of these and creates other openings for anti-peace process groups to pursue violent tactics. In this regard, there is the added danger that looking once again to the political parties may result in unintended, but historically predictable, consequences of either a stalemate or a reproduction of ethno-nationalist problems. Einstein was also reputed to have said that in the ‘middle of difficulty lies opportunity’. Amid the upheavals and unintended consequences of Brexit and the continued commitment by dissidents for more bloodshed (and a continued support among the public: Gary Donnelly, a former spokesperson for the 32-County Sovereignty Committee, topped the poll in his electoral ward in Derry) an opportunity exists in Northern Ireland to try something different: broadening the political does not need to replace parties, but continuing to concentrate on parties gives up on the chance to make real change; overlooking the potential of civil society in favour of the tried-and-tested-and-failed politics of party division instead works to constrain the democratic and risk exposing Northern Ireland even more directly to the impact of Brexit.



Dr. Cillian McGrattan is Lecturer at the School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, Ulster University.

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