Moving Away From Ethnic Politics


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The number of unresolved issues in the Northern Ireland Assembly is increasing – such as the transfer test replacement, the new good relations strategy, the Review of Public Administration and, of course, the devolution of policing and justice powers. All have foundered on the attempts of parties in the mandatory coalition to make gains for ‘their’ community, with economic and social issues taking a back seat. Recent events show that a party political system based largely on seeking electoral support from a constituency determined by religious background and national identity is not a suitable basis for modern governance.

That may be all very well, and many people may agree with me, but how do you actually make the change? The parties that appear to have cracked the problem are Alliance and the Greens. But a quick look at their web sites reveals nothing on their policy on constitutional issues; ignoring the issue isn’t the way forward. All parties have to accept the importance of national identity to many people in Northern Ireland, and the legitimacy of the accompanying aspiration to be part of a particular nation.

It’s interesting that we are moving towards a situation where unionist parties are broadly more to the centre right and nationalist parties to the centre left on a spectrum based on economic and social policy. But this leaves right-wing nationalists and left-wing unionists marooned (more or less – there’s always the PUP). It’s possible to vote for the ‘other side’ in the privacy of the ballot box, but the real damage is that a public declaration of an alternative allegiance isn’t easy, and most choose not to make it. The pool of political activists is reduced, with a knock-on effect on selection of candidates for elected office. Is it a coincidence that the quality of our politicians is often criticised?

So let’s imagine a political system which accepts that its members have different views on the national question, and which offers the opportunity for active political involvement across the left – right continuum to all people who identify as British, Irish, both, or neither, including minority ethnic groups. What does this mean for parties’ views on the constitutional question? It points firmly to Northern Ireland’s political parties refusing to have a collective view, and to party members having a free vote on constitutional issues, should they arise. A kind of conscience clause, as has been the case in some parties for issues such as capital punishment and abortion.

So, under such a system, what if there were to be a border poll? It would obviously upset the ‘conscience clause’ situation if parties decided to campaign for a particular result. Therefore, all parties should be legally prohibited from doing this and the government should establish and fund separate ‘for’ and ‘against’ campaigns, which anyone would be free to support without it affecting their political future in the party of their choice. There have been suggestions that the options should not be limited to yes or no; a case might be made for another option, such as a co-federal relationship with both states. Essentially, a state-sponsored campaign group should be formed for each option on the ballot paper.

The adoption – or rather evolution – of such a political system doesn’t mean unionist and nationalist parties have to deny their history, any more than do, say, the older parties in the Irish Republic. The narrative would be ‘we came from a unionist/ nationalist background but chose to change, because circumstances changed.’

Bonkers? Perhaps. Necessary? Certainly. It’s not going to happen overnight, but discussion could start right now.

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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

14 Responses

  1. krupskaya

    January 6, 2010 12:12 pm

    Bonkers plain and simple.

    The Nothern Irish state has always had an extreme deficit of democracy. One of the many key gains of the Belfast Agreement is that Nationalists are no longer excluded from office; politically, if not yet socially, they must now be treated as equal citizens. The fact is that this has been accompanied by the rise of anti-Partitionist forces and a break-up of the Unionist monolith. This is to be expected, since endemic discrimination was the glue keeping Unionism together and Partition in place.

    So the answer to this modest increase in deomocracy is, “all parties should be legally prohibited from doing this [campaigning in a border referendum]”! Why stop there, banning the BBC, RTE and all newspapers too. You’ll need to speak to someone with more experience though, of banning the blogosphere and Twitter. You might get a grant from the Saudi government.

    If the Alliance and Greens have ‘cracked the problem’, would this be the same terminally declining Alliance Party, who, along with the Greens got 8.8% of the vote in the latest Euro elections (which tend to favour fringe parties)? This is lower than the 11% approval rating Martin McGuinness got from Unionists alone in the latest poll (Tribune, September 30).

    Surely the polarisation of politics on Left/Right lines is a welcome development. Right-wingers from the Nationalist community do not appear to be that numerous, and leftwingers among Unionists are now spoilt for choice, PUP, SDLP or SF. Seems like some are thinking of taking the plunge.

  2. Jenny Muir

    January 6, 2010 8:59 pm

    Krupskaya – I offer this idea to widen the parameters of debate, and therefore welcome your comments. I do have to say though, I don’t know where you’ve been if you think Nationalists are not treated as equal citizens ‘socially’.

    I agree that the NI state was founded on discrimination (if we leave aside the awkward fact that southerners also voted for it), but I suspect that if most people in NI were offered the chance to merge with the 26 counties tomorrow, they would reject it for economic reasons.

    Next point – I have no problem with suggesting things should be banned, because I believe the state has a role to play in facilitating a solution in NI, especially given that for nearly 20 years there has been a stated lack of selfish or strategic interest from Westminster. However, I think an actual ban in this case may be hard to impose – might have been too hasty there. The alternative would be that parties would agree voluntarily to stand aside from the debate.

    Next – my point about Alliance and the Greens was that they HAVEN’T cracked the problem, as they have chosen not to address it explicitly.

    Lastly, I find it hard to believe that people who take a particular view on the border, often linked to their religious background, would be left-wing in significantly greater numbers than they would be right wing. Perhaps you could tell me why you think this might be? And in terms of ‘left wing’ unionists, why would they vote for the SDLP or SF? Some may also object to the PUP due to its paramilitary links.

  3. krupskaya

    January 7, 2010 10:35 am

    Jenny, If a putative referendum is such a foregone conclusion, why not get it out of the way and facilitate a political discourse more to your liking? I happen to agree with you that there is curently little chance of a majority in favour of removing the Border. But if anyone rejected it on economic grounds that would be completely false. Average incomes in the 26 Counties were 40% below those of the 6 at Partition. Now, including the savage recession, they are 30% above.

    I don’t know where you’ve been if you think there is no discrimination still against Catholics in housing, education, jobs (private and public), etc. Maybe that’s the reason why the parties drawing their support from the Nationalist community have tended more towards the Left, and (in support of that miserably privileged position in all those social areas) those drawing support from the Unionist community have tended towards the Right? I offer that as a explanation for a politcal spectrum which otherwise seems inexplicable to you.

    In any event, perhaps under the influence of their co-thinkers here in FF, the SDLP’s Right turn signalled by their neo-liberal document ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’, Rightist Nationalists will be well catered-for. Let’s see how far it gets them.

    I see you’re abandoning your own proposal to ban Parties from campaigning in a future border referendum for reasons of realpolitik. Good. Perhaps a little more democracy, not less might be in order. How about rooting a campaign in the Unionist population for investment, not cuts, better housing, improved healthcare, and job creation, for all. Better still, a Party? I know there are like-minded people in the community, and then see who supports your aims, across the divide?

  4. Babeuf

    January 7, 2010 1:38 pm

    Jenny a couple of quick points…

    1. Such a ban would in effect unfairly support unionism, as it would leave a state and status quo of partition in place, and eliminate active political struggle for unity in a state where there is a majority holding unionism.

    2. Further, it would not be able to be given great effect, as it would undoubtedly strengthen ‘dissidents’ and therefore challenge the whole process.

    The Belfast Agreement was not sold to nationalists on the basis of a political system for the north, but rather political equality from which to struggle peacefully for unification, enabled ultimately by the Agreement and such struggles supported by the two governments. Whether this is wrong or has changed is another matter, but the substance is that movement on constitutional and equality issues will constantly be required if the Agreement is to survive in the short-medium term.

  5. Jenny Muir

    January 7, 2010 7:53 pm

    Krupskaya – not sure what you mean by ‘a political discourse more to my liking’ – that and your comment about forming a political party makes me think you think I’m a unionist? I’m beginning to think you must have been looking over my shoulder at eariler drafts of this post, as another thing I deleted was reference to my personal position, which is here:

    More seriously, your point about an economic reason to vote for reunification is flawed because it doesn’t take into account (i) higher unemployment in the South and a general feeling of insecurity around jobs (ii) aspects of the UK welfare state, most particularly the NHS. Of course anyone who thinks through what reunification would actually look like (and the SDLP has made an attempt at this on their web site) realises pretty quickly that in the long term the new state wouldn’t look like either North or South at present, but this would be a point that could be explored as part of a border poll campaign.

    OF course I accept that there is still discrimination against Catholics in the areas you mention according to the statistics, my 2 points here would be (i) I thought you meant in terms of social interaction, didn’t realise you meant social provision (ii) in both social provision and social interaction, I have no personal experience of Catholics I know being discriminated against in any way. As opposed to gender, disability, and other types of ethnic origin, all of which I have witnessed in Northern Ireland. I still don’t accept that middle-class Catholics in good jobs are not as liable to veer to the right as would middle-class Protestants. AS you say, let’s watch the SDLP here.

    And finally, I don’t want to camapign for better housing, jobs and so on with unionists or nationalists, I want us all to be working together for these things and I think we can.

  6. Jenny Muir

    January 7, 2010 8:02 pm

    Babeuf – I didn’t want to put my response to your points at the end of the previous comment, as you make some very important poitns and I didn’t want them to get lost.

    Your point about the need for an ongoing campaign for Irish unity is crucial, and part of ensuring that people could not only express their national identity but also put the argument to others. I just think that for the greater political good, that argument should take place outside the party political arena through independent campaigns.

    If this happened and your scenario is correct, then a well supported campaign for Irish unity would form and would put its case extremely well, and would be able to attract supporters from across the political spectrum in the same way as many other single issue campaigns. If there was an imbalance between such a campaign (or campaigns) and one or more campaigns for maintaining the union, then that imbalance would become a matter for civil society. The involvement of people from across the spectrum would marginalise dissidents even further, and make armed struggle completely unacceptable in the current political climate. I think this also answers your point about the GFA.

  7. krupskaya

    January 8, 2010 10:28 am

    “OF course I accept that there is still discrimination against Catholics…”

    I’ll take that as agreement on this point. In light of that ongoing discrimination, my point about the SDLP’s Right Turn, apeing the current policy of FF, is that it is unlikely to be to their electoral benefit.

    My comments were focused on your political stance and have nothing to do with identity poltics. Ireland’s greatest leader had no religion and was born in Scotland.

    SF already “camapign for better housing, jobs and so on”. They were also the only Party in the Republic who not only opposed all public sector pay and jobs cuts but put forward the appropriate alternative of investment. But they have a policy on the border not to your liking. Yet the two are related.

    NI is going backwards economically, cut off from the natural planning and development potential of an all-Ireland economy, and ruled by a separate economic entity which has no capacity to develop it.

    That there are huge inequalities of income, and chronic underfunding of both infrastructure and public services cannot alter the fact that Independence allowed the economy to catch up and surpass that of NI, by some distance and even taking into account the current slump. There is no doubt that a greater equality of income distribtion, reduced poverty and increased welfare provision in the South would all be welcomed by the bulk of the population here AND increase the atractions of a United Ireland. In that sense, reunification most certainly would require a transformation of both societies.

    Unfortunately, there is also the alternative possibility of the North’s welfare state provisions converging towards the Republic’s league table low following the outcome of the next British general election.

  8. Jenny Muir

    January 10, 2010 10:03 am

    SF in the Republic are going nowhere. They are not convincing on economic policy and people don’t like their history. Ironically, a united Ireland would, IMO, see them sink without trace. The reasons they have so much support in NI are that the other nationalist alternative is weak, they have competnet people in the Assembly (with one glaring exception, Ms Ruane), and the history doesn’t count against them – yet.

    However it appears we agree on the lack of radical alternatives. I hope the current crisis may prompt more debate on alternative approaches.

  9. Garibaldy

    January 10, 2010 8:08 pm

    I have to say I am amazed by some of the statements on the comments here. I’m not really sure where to start, but so this will be a bit random.

    Regarding the idea that there don’t seem to be many right-wing nationalists. I’m gobsmacked. If nationalists parties in the north (as opposed to the south) adopt a left rhetoric, that is because of the origins of the SDLP in the 1960s, and of the adoption of a more political outlook by the Provos in the 1970s. The reality though has been to the centre-right, both in the Assembly Executive and local government. The complete lack of loss of votes for nationalist parties when they have been involved in PPP or cutting health and education services suggests that while northern nationalists are left-wing in so far as they believe in the welfare state, a commitment to left-wing values is not an integral part of their identity. Never mind the fact that there are many northern nationalists who identify with Fianna Fáil (or in the case of Austin Currie Fine Gael). The reality is that, along with the rest of Irish society, northern society is overwhelmingly to the right, regardless of constitutional affiliation – orange and green toryism is dominant (quite literally when we look at the social base for PSF’s recent dominance – it’s the same social forces from the property bubble as backed Thatcherism).

    As for left-wing unionists voting beyond the traditional confines of unionism. The WP used to pick up several hundred votes from the likes of the Shankill and Mount Vernon. The most likely scenario now, around two decades later, is that those voters are either dead, or have stopped voting for left parties with the decline of the PUP from its heyday around the time of the GFA. There is practically no evidence to suggest that they would vote for a nationalist party, in either polls or in
    voting patterns.

    As for the arguments about the southern economy and independence. If the southern economy flourished simply because of independence, then we might have expected it to grow economically more quickly, no? Instead of say people writing books in the 1950s called the Vanishing Irish so great was the crisis caused by emigration, or the government encouraging people to leave as late as the 1980s, the level of debt etc. The simple-minded nature of such statements is breathtaking. The north may have many of the hallmarks of a failed state, but then so do has the state across the border for the overwhelming majority of its existence. This is the real view from the left.

    As for discrimination. The situation has changed beyond all recognition since the civil rights movement smashed the basis of the unionist regime in 1968 and 1969. The fair employment legislation has also made a serious dent in discrimination. Yes some discrimination remains, and can and should be dealt with through the courts. But it is not at a systematic level in the same way. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the realities of the situation, and of how to address the political situation we find ourselves in.

    There is of course a broader point coming out in some of the comments made on the north. Which is that the Provisionals had to overplay its novelty and its significance in order to minimise the fact that their campaign achieved nothing – and in fact a good deal less in some cases – than had been achieved by peaceful protest, and that the outlines of the settlement have existed since the early 1970s, if not before in the minds of the Labour government that was replaced by Heath. The reality is that the main achievement – and its main claim to novelty – of the GFA was an end to violence. The Civic Forum and the Bill of Rights had the potential to give a real boost to progressive politics and the progressive agenda, but the first was squashed by all the political parties which saw it as a rival, while the second has become mired in a swamp of incompetence and reactionary attitudes among unionists.

    The debacle over the 11 Plus shows that incompetence has had a large part to play in the failure of the GFA to deliver as much change as it might, although of course we must also remember that the nationalist middle class drove both the Catholic bishops and their political parties to support the maintenance of the grammar schools. We should bear that in mind when addressing fantasies of hardly-extant right-wing nationalists.

    “SF already “camapign for better housing, jobs and so on”. They were also the only Party in the Republic who not only opposed all public sector pay and jobs cuts but put forward the appropriate alternative of investment.”

    The only party? Is this supposed to be taken seriously?

  10. krupskaya

    January 11, 2010 1:22 pm

    @ Jenny Muir

    I am glad you are now in favour of more debate, as you began this one by arguing for bans on campaigning by political parties. Whether a United Ireland would sink SF is of course a matter of conjecture. I hope we get a chance to test your proposisition.

    @ Garibaldy
    While both had useful proposals on jobs, Labour and FG accepted the government logic that cuts were required and argued for them. SF was the only party that did not, and counterposed reflation to cuts, which is both economically correct and socially just.

    SF’s Equality Agenda in the North has promoted the legislative basis which could lead to an end to discrimination. But no-one seriously suggests that it has ended discrimination, any more than equal pay acts have ended wage inequality for women, to give just one example. The existence of continued discrimination is the reason all parties who hope to garner votes from nationalists position themselves to the Left, and a continued reason why most parties attempting to represent unionists do not. (And the reason I assume the SDLP’s Right Turn will not be to its electoral benefit).

    Many on the ‘Left’ seem to misunderstand the Budget process of the NI Assembly. Without revenue-raising powers, or indeed any legslative powers affecting spending, the Budget is in effect a fixed ‘cake’ handed down from London. No Party has the ability to significantly alter its terms, because there is no majority opposed to the neo-liberal agenda which informs the received Budget.

    The Southern economy began a tortuous process of catch-up with the (snail-like) Northern economy only after independence. It only accelerated with each successive economic break from Britain. However, it is obvious that those choices were not an option had the whole of Ireland still been a colony. The economic rupture with Britain in the early 1990s, that is 70 years after independence, produced the strongest decade of growth in the history of the state (not the so-called Celtic Tiger of 2001 onwards), and led to the South economically surpassing the North for the first time in recorded history.

    It was, of course, SF who abolished the 11-plus and all the other parties lined up against them to reinstate it.

  11. Garibaldy

    January 11, 2010 3:36 pm


    I note you completely ignore the question of a right-wing form of nationalism in the north, other than saying that what you term an SDLP right turn will not gain them more success. As for the 11 Plus. It was PSF who abolished the 11 Plus in 2002, but who didn’t institute and immediate replacement, instead preferring the typical managerialist opt-out clause of a committee to draw up a report. Not only did they then do nothing about drawing up their own plans for a replacement for the next several years, they also gave away their power to enforce a replacement as part of the rush to get into government with the DUP, who have run rings round them on this and other issues, especially the Irish Language Act. Hence my mentioning of incompetence. And on a point of fact, while most unionists sough to reinstate the 11 Plus, the PUP did not, nor did Alliance, nor did the SDLP, even if Alliance and the SDLP sought to get a compromise. The handling of this not just by Ruane, but by her whole party has been nothing short of grossly incompetent and disgraceful. A sadly wasted opportunity for real progress.

    Regarding the south and alternative plans, only a few months after the Dublin European seat was lost to a party to the left of PSF, I’d have thought that it made even less sense than it would otherwise to talk about PSF being the only ones with the agenda you outline.

    The civil rights movement and the fair employment legislation of the 1970s and 1980s (back of course when Gerry Adams was telling us a Bill of Rights had no part to play in the republican struggle as he did in a letter to the press in the early 1980s) broke the back of systemic discrimination of the type on which the state was built. Clearly it has not achieved a perfect world in a society built upon sectarianism and exploitation. But the notion that the GFA has produced something radically different to what was already in place does not stand up to scrutiny.

    As for the NI budget, I’m well aware that the NI Assembly has no tax-raising powers. None of which explains the embrace of PPP in the Executive, and before that at a local government level. Speaking of embracing right-wing budgets at a local government level, Killian Forde was disciplined for voting for the Estimates in Dublin. Davy Cullinane in Waterford was not. Contradictory positions.

    As for this stuff about indpendence. The Celtic Tiger was a term came into existence during and about the 1990s economy. I am reminded of James Connolly mocking those who thought Grattan’s Parliament was the reason for economic growth in the late eighteenth century – your arguments on the south’s economic development remind me of the fly on the wheel admiring its ability to make the wheel turn round.

  12. krupskaya

    January 14, 2010 7:20 pm

    Apologies for not replying much earlier. I can only plead pressures of work.

    There are number of issues we diagree on, but I think the role of Northern Natonalists who are properly described as right-wing (and the reasons for their diminishing support), SF’s role in attempting to abolish the 11plus, major parties who counterpose investment to cuts and even interpretations of Connolly, are all important, but secondary issues.

    The two I want to focus on are diametrcally opposed views on cardinal isues; first, on independence.

    No-one here would regard Indian indpendence as irrelevant to its subsequent economic policy and recent strong growth, despite the fact that the growth is also some decades after independence. Indeed, you don’t have to be ‘Left’ at all to recognise that India’s freedom of movement on this, decisive issue, allows options which were closed off under the Empire. When India’s rulers finally make choices that stimulate growth (including encouraging a huge inflow of FDI), that has the potential to benefit the whole of society. The same logic would apply to any former colony.

    The only reason it is denied in the case of Ireland is because of a desire to separate and deny the relationship between the National Question and Socialism, just like Harry Midgely, Paddy Devlin, Austin Currie, etc., etc. did, albeit nowadays sometimes with ‘Marxist’ terminoloy.

    The second point, oft made by complacent unionists, but by no means all unionists, is that there is no discriminiation in NI. The legislation against employment discriminiation on sectarian lines was only introduced in 2003,
    The Equality Commission says legislation remains a patchwork, and therefore difficult to implement. As previously mentioned, laws on equal pay for women have been in place for decades while only fractionally improving matters. The pay gap is still 19% for full-time women workers and much higher for part-time. A misplaced faith in the enlightment of employers would be required to believe in the rapid abolition of pay discrimination against Nationalists. This is to say nothing of other areas of social discrimination, notably housing and education, as well as other areas.

    Now, why would it be denied that discrimination exists when that is patently untrue? Presumably only to deny the continued effects of Partition, both sides of the border.

  13. Garibaldy

    January 14, 2010 10:20 pm

    No problem Krupskaya.

    On fair employment laws. I have to confess once again to a certain amount of bafflement at your remark that discrimination on sectarian lines in employment was only banned in 2003 (presumably your thinking this is one of the reasons you regard the GFA as a watershed in this era).

    “Fair Employment Act
    (Northern Ireland) 1976
    1976 CHAPTER 25
    An Act to establish an Agency with the duties of promoting equality of opportunity in employments and occupations in Northern Ireland between people of different religious beliefs and of working for the elimination of discrimination which is unlawful by virtue of the Act; to render unlawful, in connection with such employments and occupations, certain kinds of discrimination on the ground of religious belief or political opinion; and for connected purposes.”

    Source for this here

    It may well be that there is an earlier specific act than this but I’m not sure. Now the Unionist Party always told Westminster that the law banned religious discrimination when the civil rights movement raised the issue in the 1960s. Which was true, although the law was a dead letter. The law has not been a dead letter on this issue since the 70s, and the changing cmployment patterns prove it, never mind the numerous cases in which people have been successfully prosecuted and/or taken to tribunals.

    I have not and am not saying there is no discrimination in Northern Ireland. Anyone with any familiarity with employment practices in the community and voluntary sector for example knows that, although it is usually on political rather than sectarian grounds. I can think of numerous examples of religious discrimination in employment. Largely because they have come within the purview of the legal system, and thus hit the media. What I have said is that the systematic and systemic discrimination on which the unionist regime was built is long gone, and that the GFA changed next to nothing in this regard.

    As for discrimination in housing. This is an argument that is often made, but is far from proven. Are there large numbers of Catholics on the waiting lists in say North Belfast, to take the case that you hear most about? Yes, absolutely. But the reasons for that as far as I can see include that it would simply be unsafe to move them into housing stock in “protestant areas”, and that there is not the space to build new houses in places like Ardoyne or the New Lodge. There is also the fact – and this might be the major problem – that the Thatcherite policy of transferring housing from public to private ownership has reduced the amount of available social housing. What evidence did you have in mind for claiming that there is still widespread discrimination in housing?

    What discrimination is there in education? Are you saying that Catholic schools are not funded, or are under-resourced compared to state schools? Are you saying that Catholics are denied the chance to go to university? There might be some discrimination in education, but it is against but the Irish-language and the integrated education sector, which are not receiving the funding from the state they deserve. Or the funding goes to the wrong place.

    What other areas are you thinking of? If you are thinking about the symbols of the state being British, then yes they are, but that’s hardly surprising given it is a British state. They is certainly a lot of bigotry within NI society, although that isn’t the same as systemic discrimination either.

    As for independence. It’s one thing saying that it was something that enabled certain conditions to come to fruition that would not have happened otherwise such as duty-free zones at Shannon. It’s something else entirely to ascribe what happened to the southern economy during the two decades or so to independence as though there is some automatic connection.

    As for the right-wing nature of northern nationalism, and the disaster of the 11 Plus, and whether PSF is the leading left party. These are far from secondary issues. They are absolutely fundamental to the strategy the left should be adopting north and south.

  14. Babeuf

    January 18, 2010 10:28 pm

    Thanks for the response Jenny! I do understand what you are saying, and sympathise on the basis of what you believe it could achieve, but I still believe it is unrealistic, unreasonable and unfair as stated. I would though fundamentally support changes in the assembly rules which would allow non-constitutional based coalitions, thus strengthening the possibility for what suggest under present arrangements. Possibly something we could unite a substantial amount of the present chamber to pass?

    That is as long as the present arrangements last…

    And to nail my colours to the mast, I’d be a shinner sympathiser (although in light of present allegations, ho hum 🙁 )