Why Northern Ireland is such a tough nut to crack for Westminster politicians

Out of your depth, Ed? Paul Faith/PA

The election on May 7 is an election to the UK parliament. In theory it is, anyway. In practice, though, the campaign is dominated by the Great Britain threesome of England, Wales and Scotland.

Only one of the three biggest UK parties even fields candidates in Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party has candidates standing in 16 of the 18 local constituencies, but realistically it is not a significant challenger in any of them, prompting criticism that it is not taking the race seriously. Absolutely none will stand from Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Northern Ireland has long been regarded as a place apart when it comes to UK electoral politics. It is seen as a “problem”, and therefore needs to have its own party system to address the specific difficult issues with which it seems permanently beset.

Local business

Few outside Northern Ireland were particularly perturbed by the DUP’s exclusion from the debates. Northern Ireland, it was clearly implied, was not an integral part of the “British” election and should focus on its own problems – most of all resolving the tensions that continue to divide unionists, who see Northern Ireland as part of the UK, and nationalists, who want it to rejoin the Republic of Ireland.

A DUP delegation outside Stormont. Niall Carson/PA

One interpretation of Northern Ireland’s problems is that they stem precisely from this indifference. If British parties were to treat Northern Ireland like Manchester or Yorkshire by fully engaging in campaigning there, the importance of the ethno-national divide in local politics would decrease. Northern Ireland voters would instead start talking and thinking about the types of issues that British people talk and think about – the NHS and taxation rather than disputes over flags and parading.

A waste of time?

This may be naïve, of course. Would Labour and the Conservatives in Northern Ireland really be supported in the same way as they are in Britain if they put more effort into campaigning? Would the middle class (whether Catholic or Protestant) generally support the Conservatives and the working class (in both communities) support Labour?

Or would ethno-national politics inevitably prevail, with Northern Ireland Catholics voting for one British party and Northern Ireland Protestants voting for another?

In reality, the Conservatives are likely to be viewed positively by only one community: Protestant unionists. The party has an unambiguously pro-union stance and historical formal links with Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist party.

Labour, on the other hand, could actually appeal to both Catholics and Protestants. It is unionist, but has historically taken a more sympathetic approach to nationalist demands. Labour could play a significant part in ending sectarian politics if it ended its long-held reluctance to energetically fight in Northern Ireland elections. But it doesn’t even try – and there are reasons for that.

While Labour could attract support from both communities, it would probably come from the moderates within each side. This would have a seriously detrimental impact on the electoral success of moderate parties in Northern Ireland, such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party.

And if the British parties engaged more in Northern Ireland during the election, they might find it hard to claim to be honest brokers of the endless squabbles between the Northern Ireland parties.

Given that such inter-party ructions are unlikely to end any time soon, British parties might do well to stay as neutral as possible in the local Northern Ireland political scene.

It still matters

In any event, even if British parties are peripheral or non-existent in Northern Ireland, attitudes to them are still important given the closeness of the Westminster election.

SDLP voters know that their party will support Labour at Westminster. So anyone who is inclined to support the SDLP but is horrified by the idea of a Labour government may think twice about how they vote.

The situation is different for DUP voters. The party explicitly aims to play the two big parties off against each other in post-election negotiations, so it’s much more unclear how voters’ views of the two big parties might affect support for the DUP.

Sinn Féin supporters are the most uninterested in the British parties, since they see them as representing a different country. Sinn Féin fields candidates in the Westminster campaign, and currently has five MPs – who abstain from voting in parliament. If Sinn Féin were to end this policy and start playing hardball like the DUP, then things might get a lot more interesting. Maybe next time.