Northern Irish politics explained

UPDATED: My post a couple of years ago explaining Northern Irish politics has proved to be my most popular to date. In response to that, and my increased knowledge of the region’s political situation, I’ve written this much more detailed post.

If I had to sum up Northern Irish politics in one word, it would be complicated. The political situation in the region is very different to that of the rest of the UK, which can be very confusing. Even the Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, essentially admitted that she didn’t have a clue what was going on when she started the job (which is a tiny bit worrying).

The main thing to note is that the major British parties rarely stand in elections there, and as opposed to having a left-right divide, the Northern Irish electorate is split into two camps: Unionist and Nationalist. Unionists, who tend to be Protestant, want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, whilst the predominantly Catholic Nationalists (also known as Republicans) want the region to join with the south to form a united Ireland. This division manifested itself in decades of violent conflict (known as the ‘Troubles’) which semi-ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Unlike in Britain, where people may vote for Labour at one election and for the Conservatives at the next, voters in Northern Ireland would always vote according to whether they identify as a Unionist or Nationalist. Therefore it would be very rare for someone to vote for a Unionist party one year, and then a Nationalist the next.

The largest Unionist party in recent years has been the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which currently supports the Conservative government in the House of Commons. Led by Arlene Foster, it is pretty right-wing and opposes both abortion and same-sex marriage.

Their Republican counterpart is Sinn Fein, which was formerly the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. Its is reasonably left-wing, and is thought to be quite close in ideology to that of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.  Although the party won 7 seats at Westminster at the 2017 General Election, they do not take up these seats in the House of Commons as a sign of how they believe that Northern Ireland should not be ruled by the British government.

A significant amount of legislative power over the region’s affairs is devolved to the Northern Irish Assembly. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the Assembly’s government must include both the largest Unionist party and the largest Nationalist party in order to ensure that both groups’ views are represented and prevent a return to the conflict of the ‘Troubles’. However, since the beginning of 2017 there has been no government at the Northern Irish Assembly, as Sinn Fein and the DUP have been unable to agree on the terms of a power-sharing coalition agreement.

The political situation in Northern Ireland has been more tense of late due to the increasing polarisation of Northern Irish politics. Previously, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP were the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties respectively. These parties were more moderate, however, support for them at the ballot box declined until they were overtaken in popularity by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The Conservative-DUP pact has arguably made matters worse, with Nationalists claiming that this represents bias by the British government towards the Unionist side, and prevents them from being an impartial arbiter of conflict in Northern Ireland. Certainly, the Conservatives would not want to do anything that would upset the DUP, as their majority in the House of Commons rests on their backing.

Finally, Brexit is also posing the problem of how a hard border between the north and south of Ireland can be avoided. As the UK is leaving the customs union, there will no longer be free movement of goods between the Republic of Ireland and the UK. It remains to be seen what the solution will be, but the Conservatives are anxious to appease the DUP, whose support they need to get the final deal through the Commons.

Northern Irish politics has never before been so relevant to British politics, and the situation is changing weekly. So, yes, it’s a bit of a confusing one. But just think: If you understood even a paragraph of this post, you have more knowledge of Northern Irish politics than the Northern Ireland Secretary…

Click here for my original post on Northern Irish politics (now titled ‘Northern Irish parties explained’).