Explainer: Northern Irish politics

Belfast bakery or political hot potato? Brian Lawless/PA

They may not have been invited to the TV debates, but the political parties of Northern Ireland are campaigning just as hard as any. Candidates are pounding the pavements in the contest for 18 parliamentary seats and manifestos are being launched left, right and centre.

These give an indication of the issues that dominate the political scene in this often overlooked part of the UK.

Politics in Northern Ireland is rather idiosyncratic. The foremost issue remains the region’s contested constitutional status, which still divides those who wish to remain within the UK (Unionists, Loyalists and mainly Protestant) from those who want Northern Ireland to be reunified with the Irish Republic (Nationalists, Republicans and mainly Catholic).

This constitutional issue underpins Northern Ireland’s ethnic dual party system. Nationalist parties such as Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) compete with each other for the nationalist vote and an alphabet soup of unionist parties (UUP, DUP, TUV and, most recently, UKIP) slug it out for the unionist vote.

At the moment, the Northern Ireland Assembly is run by the DUP’s Peter Robinson as First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin as Deputy First Minister. The DUP holds eight seats in the Westminster Parliament and Sinn Féin holds five, though its members abstain from sitting.

A handful of other parties, namely the moderate Alliance Party, position themselves as a cross-community option. They reject the sectarian labels of nationalist or unionist and appeal to both sides of the electorate.

Flags, parades and the past

This “orange and green” divide manifests itself in a cluster of issues. In recent years, Northern Irish politicians (as well as the British and Irish governments) have been especially preoccupied with a trio of issues colloquially summarised as flags, parades and the past.

Following a decision by Belfast City Council in 2012 to restrict the flying of the Union Flag on City Hall to designated days, the issue of flags and other cultural emblems has been ever-present on the political agenda.

Loyalists clash with police in 2013 after their march was banned. Julien Behal/PA

So too has the handling of contentious parades – not least that involving the Orange Order in the constituency of North Belfast. Then there is the highly emotive issue of who should be regarded as a ‘victim’ of the protracted civil conflict known as the Troubles.

Several attempts have been made to agree on a strategy to deal with these three identity-related issues. The most recent of these involved former US diplomat Richard Haass and culminated in the signing of the Stormont House Agreement in December 2014. As it stands, however, the future viability of this accord is firmly in the balance. How best to handle the flying of flags, the policing of parades and the legacy of the Troubles remains a hot topic.

Shared interests

Beyond these issues, there are the same topics familiar to any British voter. There is a strong argument to be made that since the reinstatement of devolved power-sharing in Northern Ireland in 2007 the region’s politics are becoming increasingly normalised, with classic bread-and-butter issues, such as the economy, healthcare and education afforded greater prominence.

In particular, the years of coalition government in Westminster will be remembered in Northern Ireland for the fierce political clashes that took place over welfare reform.

Clear divisions exist between the parties in Northern Ireland over the implementation of the austerity programme agreed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Unlike the DUP, Sinn Féin was strident in its anti-austerity position, placing great strain on the devolved power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland. In February 2015, the party blocked the Northern Ireland Assembly’s attempts to approve new welfare reform legislation, much to the consternation of the DUP.

The issue of whether the region, with its own unique fiscal challenges, should implement controversial measures such as the bedroom tax or try to shelter from the worst ravages of austerity has so far been the primary economic issue in the campaign.

Abortion and same-sex marriage

Northern Ireland is also notable for the prominence of issues concerning social morality and the traditionally conservative policies of some of its main parties. While politicians elsewhere in the UK do their best to avoid touchstone moral issues such as abortion and gay rights come election season, they’re still a staple of Northern Ireland politics.

At present, the DUP is taking steps to introduce a conscience clause into equality law in Northern Ireland which would allow religious people to refuse custom to those who hold views contrary to their religious beliefs. This follows a controversy involving a Belfast bakery that refused to make a cake featuring a slogan in support of gay marriage.

Northern Ireland’s stance on abortion is also different from the UK, with much more restrictive conditions in place.

Pay attention

With a hung parliament looking certain come May 7, Northern Ireland – often on the fringes of the Westminster scene – may play a crucial role in the shape and direction of any future coalition government. And that means the issues that drive Northern Ireland politics should be of great interest to the rest of the UK.

Some outside Northern Ireland might be surprised to learn of the social conservatism of the DUP – the party set to return the largest number of MPs from Northern Ireland and which has said it’s ready to prop up either a Labour or Conservative-led coalition.

But such support will come with conditions, many of which might jar with the beliefs of other coalition partners and the rest of the UK populace. It seems a strong possibility then that in the lifetime of the next parliament, the curious political dynamics of Northern Ireland could suddenly grab the attention of the rest of Britain.