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Orangemen on the march. PA Images

Northern Ireland: as marching season begins, a new political force is on the rise

There was a worrying increase in violence during the Protestant Orange marches of July 2018, a traditional flashpoint between Northern Ireland’s Nationalist and Unionist communities. The marches commemorate the victory of Protestant William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. They are organised by the Orange Order every July 12 and take place throughout the province.

While tension thankfully did not reach levels seen in the past, a new political force, which stretches beyond the legacy issues of the The Troubles, is emerging in the province. But can it really break the stranglehold of the main sectarian parties – and move the province further on from the lasting divisions typified by the annual Orange marches?

At a recent event at Queen’s University Belfast, a number of representatives from minority ethnic, gender, political and sexual communities discussed the exclusion faced by those not primarily motivated by the Green (Nationalist) or Orange (Unionist) agenda.

The discussion concluded that the power-sharing agreement between the two sides has stagnated and is unable to deliver policy reform that would limit discrimination or change a government system that has entrenched the divided political identities. While the two main parties – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein – retain firm control over the province’s shared executive, their ongoing disregard for the ever-growing concerns of “others” will only lead to more frustration with government.

A time of change

The Good Friday Agreement, signed 21 years ago, has undoubtedly transformed Northern Ireland for the better – and politically motivated violence, while still evident, is much rarer now than in the past.

The power-sharing agreement means that Unionists and Nationalists are represented in the executive and public office in proportion to their population share. It also protects the interests of Protestants and Catholics in the province. These structures are a powerful incentive for the two communities to use political, rather than violent, means to achieve their objectives. But they were not designed to reflect or empower the voice of “others”.

Read more: The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland at 20 – The Anthill podcast

The European parliament elections on May 23 confirmed that past bipolar divides are diminishing, however. For the first time, Northern Ireland will be represented in the European parliament by a Unionist from the DUP, a Nationalist Sinn Fein MEP – and one from the Alliance Party, which is non-aligned but anti-Brexit, and which made an 11% gain on its vote share in 2014. For many voters, Europe was one of the most emotive issues – with 57% of voters opting for pro-EU candidates – and the Alliance win hinted at the arrival of a new type of politics.

This was a significant victory for the Alliance party – a political “other” in the province’s often bipartisan political system. But, in the earlier May 2 council elections, “others” also doubled their vote share compared with the previous elections.

Alliance party leader and candidate Naomi Long (centre), at the European parliamentary elections, 2019. PA Images

Indeed, a range of “other” parties, positioning themselves as a clear anti-sectarian alternative, made significant gains in the council elections. The Greens doubled their number of seats, while Alliance closed the gap on the DUP. Sinn Fein also suffered in their strongholds of Derry and Strabane, and lost five seats, with independent candidates taking the advantage.

People Before Profit, a radical left-wing outfit with a broad social inclusion agenda, also performed well in the council elections, winning five seats – raising their 2014 total by four – including two seats on Belfast city council.

Read more: An anti-Brexit party just made an extraordinary breakthrough in Northern Ireland

The “others” are hardly a homogenous group, but neither are the Unionists or Republicans. Hints of change are also evident in their ranks. May’s council elections, for example, saw the first openly gay Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) councillor, Alison Bennington, elected. She joins gay councillors elected in 2014 from Sinn Fein, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party.

Too many vetoes

But the right to veto any legislation that encroaches on issues of community is the centrepiece of the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland – and this is a problem. Indeed, these veto powers have prevented the main parties from forming a functioning government for more than two years now.

The biggest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, has repeatedly blocked legislation that would legalise same-sex marriage, while abortion was banned in Northern Ireland [in all but exceptional cases] until this week’s Westminster vote to bring marriage equality and abortion rights to the province. The results of the Westminster vote will likely place extra pressure on the DUP to reform the government, but it could once again employ the veto to stop the legislation coming into effect.

But while there is widespread frustration over Brexit and the ongoing border question, there is also growing and palpable discontent among voters surrounding the dominance of the two parties that are allocated government posts in the – defunct since March 2017 – Northern Ireland assembly.

The recent EU election happened at a point when Northern Ireland’s “other” community is growing more frustrated with the primacy of “green and orange” politics – and the province now holds a dubious world record for the longest time without a government. With talks continuing, residents of the province are hoping that a working government can again start dealing with legislative issues and move beyond the classic divisions.

Today, these “others” mobilise their followers around the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, but they also stand up for pressing, but everyday issues, such as the environment, sectarianism and street crime.

While the victory for Alliance should not be seen as the destruction of the Nationalist and Unionist values that allow the DUP and Sinn Fein to remain the biggest parties in Northern Ireland, it is a message that the government is not working for an ever-growing community. They ignore this message at their peril.

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