Politics of Northern Ireland
Since 1998, Northern Ireland has devolved government within the United Kingdom. The British Government and Parliament are responsible for reserved and excepted matters. Reserved matters are a list of policy area (such as civil aviation, units of measurement, and human genetics), which Parliament may devolve to Northern Ireland Assembly at some time in future. Excepted matters (such as international relations, taxation and elections) are never expected to be considered for devolution. On all other matters, the Northern Ireland Executive together with the 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly may legislate and govern for Northern Ireland. Additionally, devolution in Northern Ireland is dependent upon participation by members of the Northern Ireland executive in the North/South Ministerial Council, which co-ordinates areas of co-operation (such as agriculture, education and health) between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are by single transferable vote with six representatives (Member of the Legislative Assembly, MLAs) elected from 18 parliamentary constituencies. Eighteen representatives to the lower house of the British parliament (Members of Parliament, MPs) are elected from the same constituencies using the first-past-the-post system. However, not all of these take their seats. Sinn Féin MPs, currently five, refuse to take the oath to serve the Queen that is required of all MPs. In addition, the upper house of the UK's parliament, the House of Lords, currently has some 25 appointed members from Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland itself forms a single constituency for elections to the European Union.
The Northern Ireland Office represents the British government in Northern Ireland on reserved matters, and represents Northern Ireland's interests within the UK. Additionally, the Government of Ireland also has the right to "put forward views and proposals" on non-devolved matters in relation to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland office is led by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who sits in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom.
Much of the population of Northern Ireland identifies with one of two different ideologies, unionist (who want the region to remain part of the United Kingdom) and nationalist (who want a united Ireland). Unionists are predominantly Protestant, most of whom belong to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland or the Church of Ireland. Nationalists are predominantly Roman Catholic. However, not all Catholics support nationalism, and not all Protestants support unionism. It is also important to note that, in parallel with other parts of Europe, the proportion of the population practising their religious beliefs has fallen dramatically in recent decades, particularly among Catholics and adherents of mainstream Protestant denominations. This has not necessarily resulted in a weakening of communal feeling.
- 1 Political representation
- 2 Political parties
- 3 Political demography
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Northern Ireland currently has the following political representation:
- the Northern Ireland Assembly has 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) (currently 55 unionists, 45 nationalists, 9 others), which had its powers restored on 8 May 2007.
- 18 seats in the United Kingdom House of Commons (currently 9 unionist MPs, 8 nationalist MPs and 1 cross community MP)
- there are several unionists but no nationalists or republicans on the Privy Council of the United Kingdom (see List of Northern Ireland members of the Privy Council).
- three seats in the European Parliament (currently two unionist, one republican)
- at local level there are currently 26 district councils – on 22 November 2005 Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced proposals to reduce the number of councils to seven.
Voting patterns break down as follows:
- 2010 Westminster election – Unionists 50.5%, Republicans/Nationalists 42.0%, Others 7.5%
- 2005 Westminster election – Unionists 51.4%, Republican/Nationalists 41.8%, Others 6.8%
- 2001 Westminster election – Unionists 52.9%, Republican/Nationalists 42.7%, Others 4.4%
- 1997 Westminster election – Unionists 50.5%, Republican/Nationalists 40.2%, Others 9.3%
- 2009 European Election – Unionists 49.0%, Republicans/Nationalists 42.2%, Others 8.8%
- 2004 European election – Unionists 48.6%, Republicans/Nationalists 42.2%, Others 9.2%
- 1999 European election – Unionists 52.3%, Republicans/Nationalists 45.4%, Others 2.3%
- 2011 Assembly election – Unionists 48.3%, Republicans/Nationalists 41.5%, Others 10.2%
- 2007 Assembly election – Unionists 48.6%, Republicans/Nationalists 42.0%, Others 9.4%
- 2003 Assembly election – Unionists 52.1%, Republicans/Nationalists 40.5%, Others 7.4%
- 1998 Assembly election – Unionists 50.6%, Republicans/Nationalists 39.7%, Others 9.7%
In all elections in Northern Ireland the single transferable vote system of proportional representation is used except for the House of Commons elections where a "first past the post" or plurality voting system is used.
Proposed representation in the Republic
Sinn Féin, currently the biggest of the republican/nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, has campaigned for a broadening of the franchise of Northern Ireland voters to allow them to vote in elections to choose the President of Ireland. It has also demanded that all Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and MPs be allowed speaking rights in the lower house of the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, Dáil Éireann. It was given to understand that the Irish government has accepted this and had plans to introduce legislation in the autumn of 2005. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) backed the move. However, a spokesman for Taoiseach Bertie Ahern later rowed back, stating that it had never been intended that northern MPs have a right to attend plenary sessions of the Dáil, but that they would be invited to participate in Oireachtas committees dealing with Northern Ireland matters, and only if there was all-party agreement behind it. The unionist parties, along with Fine Gael, Labour and the Progressive Democrats have all declared their opposition to the move, as has much of the Irish media, with articles highly critical of the proposal published in The Irish Times and the Sunday Independent. Nonetheless on 22 November 2007, representatives from both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, (unionists declined the invitation) attended a meeting of the Oireachtas committee reviewing the workings of the Good Friday Agreement. The 18 Northern Ireland MPs can take part in this committee's debates (as well as other relevant committees by invitation), but will not have a right to vote or to move motions and amendments.
Political parties in Northern Ireland can be divided into three distinct categories:
- unionist parties, such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Ulster Unionist Party, and other smaller parties such as the Progressive Unionist Party and Traditional Unionist Voice
- republican/nationalist parties like Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
- cross-community parties such as the Alliance Party and the Green Party.
There are some parties who could fit comfortably in more than one of these groups, or about whom it could be argued which group they would fall into, such as the Conservative Party who, while pro-union, stated an intention before the 2007 election to designate as "other" should they gain any seats in the Assembly (which they did not).
The Ulster Unionist Party were historically a cross-class massenpartei who ran a one-party Northern Ireland Government from its creation until 1972, although since the rise of the DUP in the 1970s, their support has been more middle-class. Until 1972 the UUP's members of the British House of Commons took the Conservative Party whip, but currently sit as a party in their own right. The UUP's member of the European Parliament belongs to the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.
The DUP are a more complex mixture than the other major parties—combining support from rural evangelicals and from urban, secular, working-class voters. The party is firmly to the right on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, European integration and equal opportunities (although the party seems to be moderating its stance on gay rights since the "Save Ulster from Sodomy" campaign of the 1980s). Conversely, the DUP often support social programmes which benefit their working class or agricultural base, for example, free public transport for the elderly and European Union agricultural subsidies. The DUP have grown in recent years as they were the only major party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement, although they now are part of a government operating it.
The smaller, left-leaning Progressive Unionist Party and Ulster Political Research Group have been linked with the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association respectively. The now-defunct UK Unionist Party managed to have its leader, Robert McCartney, elected as the MP for the North Down constituency in the 1997 UK general election.
Similarly, on the nationalist side of the political spectrum, Sinn Féin has overtaken the traditionally dominant SDLP in recent elections. Sinn Féin is a left-wing Irish republican party, committed to espousing an all-Ireland republic. Traditionally the party of the urban Catholic working-class and a number of republican rural areas, since the IRA ceasefires of the mid-1990s it has expanded its base considerably, and has overtaken the long-dominant SDLP in terms of vote share. The SDLP are a nominally social democratic party and a full member of the Party of European Socialists and Socialist International. However, as the Northern Ireland party system is not based on socio-economic divisions, it inevitably attracts a wider spectrum of opinion and has a middle-class support base. The SDLP support Irish Reunification, but reject utterly the use of violence as a means to that end. The SDLP has lost considerable support in the past decade, with the retirement of key figures such as former leader John Hume and deputy leader Seamus Mallon and the IRA's cessation of violence. The party has members who wish to follow an agenda focusing primarily on "bread and butter issues" (taxation, employment, education, health, etc.) and those who wish to follow a more nationalist campaign to challenge Sinn Féin.
Unlike in unionism, religion is—according to the study of Evans and Duffy—not a major factor in patterns of republican parties' supporters (though Sinn Féin supporters tend to attend less). The left–right ideology has also less impact than in case of unionism. The age has a strong impact on party choice: the more radical Sinn Féin has more support among the young than the SDLP has. The most important factor is attachment to nationalist ideology: Sinn Féin has high levels of support among the people strongly committed to nationalism
Cross community and other parties
Among the cross-community parties, the Alliance Party draws its support mainly from middle-class professionals in the suburbs of Belfast. It professes to be the only significant party which does not base its political stance around the constitutional question. The party has strong links with the Liberal Democrats in Britain and is a member of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and Liberal International.
Other parties who contest elections in Northern Ireland include the Green Party, the Workers' Party and the Northern Ireland branch of the Conservative Party. The feminist Northern Ireland Women's Coalition briefly held seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but is now defunct. Ulster Third Way is a small grouping advocating independence for Northern Ireland.
Fianna Fáil, the third-largest party in the Republic, has recently opened a cumann (branch) in Derry, and begun recruiting at Queens University Belfast. The leadership as of 2005[update] had decided not to take part in electoral politics in Northern Ireland, however in the latter part of 2007 the Taoiseach said his party was consulting its grassroots on the possibility of contesting elections in the North, and that in advance of this Fianna Fáil had registered as a political party in Northern Ireland. Some, within both Fianna Fáil and the SDLP (including former SDLP European Elections candidate Martin Morgan) have advocated an alliance, or even a merger, between both parties. However, many in both parties are hostile to the idea, with some in the SDLP pointing out to the left-wing links between the party and the Irish Labour Party.
Future of political parties in Northern Ireland
Some commentators believe there are indications that the religious and ethnic basis of the party system may start to disintegrate. For example, in the 1998–2003 Assembly, there was a Catholic Member of the Legislative Assembly sitting for the Ulster Unionist Party. The SDLP have had a number of Protestant representatives in the past. A Protestant SDLP councillor recently defected to Sinn Féin. Up to now, these have been one-off events, which have occurred periodically throughout Northern Ireland's history without setting a trend—cf Sir Denis Henry in the early part of the 20th century. In any event, social class is an important part of competition within the main ethnic political blocs, and class-based party structures in other established democracies have weakened since the end of the Cold War. Since the beginning of the peace process, the non-ethnic parties have declined, while the more radical Sinn Féin and DUP have prospered. Some observers counter that, in the long-term, the constitutional question may become less relevant due to the increasing role of the European Union, and therefore a less sectarian political system may develop although there has been little so far to bear this out.
Once established under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, Northern Ireland was structured geographically to guarantee a unionist majority in its government. In local government the significantly nationalist area of Derry produced a unionist majority through the gerrymandering of the electoral ward. Ironically, when the issue of gerrymandering was addressed in 1973, the changing of the electoral wards favoured Unionism. Anger at local government control by unionists, and the alleged awarding of social housing to Protestants to ensure unionist majorities in areas with large Catholic populations, was a significant factor in the creation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in the 1960s, with a sit-in by nationalist politician Austin Currie in a house granted to a 19-year-old single Protestant woman (who worked for the Ulster Unionist Party) ahead of a large homeless Catholic family triggering off the movement. This was the only documented case of this having happened. As Currie himself said at the time, "If I had waited a thousand years, I'd never get a better case than this one."
The number of people claiming to be Roman Catholic in the Northern Ireland Census has increased over the decades, though the rate of this increase has slowed in recent years. In contrast, the number of people claiming to be Presbyterian and Church of Ireland in the census has decreased. A Catholic plurality over Protestants is predicted by the time of the 2021 census, with Catholics dominant to the west and south of Northern Ireland as well as in the two largest cities of Belfast and Derry, while Protestants are expected to retain a majority primarily to the east and north. The anticipated Catholic plurality is based on the assumption that the current trends of demographic change will continue, but at a slower rate than previously. The last 20 years have seen a 10.5% reduction in the proportion of the population of Protestant background (from 58.5% to 48%), and a 3.5% increase in those of Catholic background (from 41.5% to 45%). As of the 2011 census, people from a Catholic background now outnumber people from a Protestant background in half of all Northern Ireland's local council areas, as well as in half of all Westminster and Stormont constituencies.
The religious affiliations, based on census returns, have changed as follows between 1961 and 2002:
|Church of Ireland (Protestant)||24.2%||17.7%||15.3%||13.7%|
|Other Religions (including other Protestant)||9.3%||11.5%||9.9%||19.6%|
|All other Christian||53.1%||48.4%|
Views on the Union
According to a 2010 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey carried out by Queens University Belfast and the University of Ulster, 73% support remaining part of the United Kingdom via devolved government or direct rule, with support for leaving the UK and forming a political United Ireland at 16%. In terms of religion, 52% of Northern Ireland Catholics now support remaining part of the United Kingdom via devolved government or direct rule, usually while continuing to support nationalist political parties. The number of Catholics supporting a United Ireland has now dropped to 33% amongst the Catholic population, according to the same poll. The proportion of Protestants given in the study who wish to join the Republic is under 5%, as 90% prefer remaining in the United Kingdom in some form. There are also considerable numbers of people who give ambiguous answers to questions about the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Some who want unification consider themselves to be republicans as opposed to nationalists. Some nationalists have sought a favourable arrangement for Ireland within the United Kingdom. Some in the Protestant community (such as paramilitaries and their supporters) usually term themselves as loyalists, as opposed to unionists. As a result, the term "loyalist" has become less popular among unionists in recent decades, especially with unionist politicians. In recent times, some[who?] Unionists have been seeking to secure a more favourable arrangement for Ulster in the possibility of a united Ireland. A small minority of people from both religious backgrounds advocate independence for Northern Ireland (possibly accompanied by some form of realignment of the Border with the Republic). Support for this concept while fluctuating is regarded as insignificant.
Elections in Northern Ireland are often characterised as mini-referendums on the constitutional question. Voters may also perceive voting to be about strengthening the hand of their section of the community within Northern Ireland, or about gaining advantage for their social class.
In general, Protestants in Northern Ireland see themselves as being British, while Catholics regard themselves as being Irish, as has been shown by data from 1989 to 2006 (see below).
A 2006 report from the Institute of Governance stated that "Three-quarters of Northern Ireland's Protestants regard themselves as British, but only 12 per cent of Northern Ireland's Catholics do so. Conversely, a majority of Catholics (65%) regard themselves as Irish, whilst very few Protestants (5%) do likewise" and that "In Northern Ireland, very few respondents identify themselves as both British and Irish."
A 2002–2003 study conducted by researchers from the Universities of York, Oxford and Ulster found that "The meaning of British identity in Northern Ireland... is closely correlated to religious community, with Catholics in the main considering themselves as Irish and Protestants British. A significant number identified themselves as “Northern Irish”.
A survey in 1999 showed that 72% of Northern Irish Protestants considered themselves "British" and 2% "Irish", with 68% of Northern Irish Catholics considering themselves "Irish" and 9% "British". The survey also revealed that 78% of Protestants and 48% of all respondents felt "Strongly British", while 77% of Catholics and 35% of all respondents felt "Strongly Irish". 51% of Protestants and 33% of all respondents felt "Not at all Irish", while 62% of Catholics and 28% of all respondents felt "Not at all British".
Discussion of national identity may be complicated by the fact that many in Northern Ireland are not willing to accept national identities of others:
A 1997 publication by Democratic Dialogue financed by the Central Community Relations Unit of the Northern Ireland Office stated that "It is clear that many in Northern Ireland are willing to tolerate the Other's cultural identity only within the confines of their own core ideology... most nationalists have extreme difficulty in accepting unionists' Britishness or, even if they do, the idea that unionists do not constitute an Irish ethnic minority which can ultimately be accommodated within the Irish nation...." Discussion may be hindered by the lack of definitions which command cross-community support. For example, with regard to "Irishness", the 1997 publication stated that "Irishness is a highly contested identity, subject to fundamentally different nationalist and unionist perceptions which profoundly affect notions of allegiance and group membership.".
Four polls taken between 1989 and 1994 revealed that when asked to state their national identity, over 79% of Northern Irish Protestants replied "British" or "Ulster" with 3% or less replying "Irish", while over 60% of Northern Irish Catholics replied "Irish" with 13% or less replying "British" or "Ulster".
However, many commentators consider the argument an exclusive disjunction, ignoring the fact that many people in Northern Ireland consider themselves both British AND Irish, or hold some other combination of identity. This can been seen in various annual results of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. In 1999, for example, the survey found that 91% of Roman Catholics and 48% of Protestants thought of themselves as strongly or weakly Irish. At the same time, 55% of people who declared themselves to be neither Protestant nor Catholic (and this would have included people of Protestant or Roman Catholic backgrounds as well as people of other faiths, none and immigrants) thought of themselves as strongly or weakly Irish.
|Strongly or weakly||36%||96%||83%||70%|
|Not at all||62%||4%||15%||28%|
|Strongly or weakly||91%||48%||55%||65%|
|Not at all||9%||51%||43%||33%|
|Strongly or weakly||38%||83%||61%||63%|
|Not at all||61%||16%||35%||36%|
|Strongly or weakly||72%||85%||78%||78%|
|Not at all||28%||15%||20%||21%|
Note: percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
- A Shared Future
- Identity Cards Act 2006
- Demography of the United Kingdom
- List of Acts of the Parliament of Northern Ireland
- List of political parties in Northern Ireland
- List of political parties in the Republic of Ireland
- List of Statutory Rules and Orders of Northern Ireland
- Lists of UK locations with large ethnic minority populations
- Royal Commission on the Constitution (United Kingdom)
- Segregation in Northern Ireland
- Due to the abstentionist nature of Sinn Féin MPs, the fact that the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871, meaning the church no longer sends representatives to the House of Lords (unlike the Church of England, which continues to send two archbishops and 24 bishops, known as Lords Spiritual), as well as the fact that bishops of the Roman Catholic Church are not represented, this has resulted in most Northern Ireland members of House of Lords (such as Eileen Paisley and David Trimble — see List of Northern Ireland Members of the House of Lords) coming from Unionist backgrounds by default. In July 2009 Nuala O'Loan, who is married to the SDLP MLA Declan O'Loan, was appointed by Gordon Brown to this legislative body. The late Gerry Fitt, the first leader of the nationalist SDLP, sat from 1983 until 2005.
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- How strongly to you feel yourself to be Irish? Northern Ireland Life & Times Survey, 1999
- BBC NI – NI politics
- Belfast Telegraph – NI politics
- Guardian – NI politics
- Daily Telegraph – NI politics