One correspondent recently suggested we don’t have “enough choice” among political parties in Northern Ireland – ignoring the fairly obvious point that we have a five-party system and a sprinkling of other options giving us more choice than pretty much anyone else in Western Europe.
The correspondent then suggested that the problem was (I paraphrase) that we lack left-wing Unionist parties and right-wing Nationalist parties. That’s because such parties wouldn’t get anywhere – if they would, they would exist!
Ultimately, this comes down to the fundamental crux of people’s misunderstanding about electoral politics – it is surprisingly irrational, being based primarily on our “gene pool” (i.e. the cultural heritage in which we grew up).
In other words, Northern Ireland is not unique in having tribal politics. The well-off family in Crosby will still vote Labour; the squeezed middle in Folkestone will still vote Conservative. In the Republic of Ireland, they quite openly talk of “gene-pool Fianna Fail” or “gene-pool Fine Gael” (often with reference to independents who have broken away), in much the same way that the late and much missed David McClarty remained “gene-pool Ulster Unionist”.
Selecting a political party for most (by no means all, but definitely most) is almost like selecting a football team – you go through your ups and downs, you reach the end of your tether with the manager and players, but you support them nonetheless. I myself am an obvious example of the problem – in Great Britain I am “gene-pool Conservative”; in Northern Ireland I am “gene-pool Alliance”. My (English) father made it up from his boot straps, orphaned at five to quintessential middle-class at fifty; that’s the “gene-pool Conservative”; my (Northern Irish) mother had parents who were pro-British but never Orange, who promoted her study (as a woman this was well ahead of their time in Northern Ireland in the early ’50s), and who had no difficulty with her homosexual friends even when homosexuality was illegal; that’s the “gene-pool Alliance”. For all the rational thought I give to it, my instincts and biases were formed by my “gene pool” – I can at least be honest about it!
The choice we have is indeed limited somewhat by our collective gene pool. Social Conservatism is part of the Unionist tradition (as I have long argued, there are actually no “Liberal Unionists” – you’re one or the other); progressivism (in the broadest sense) is part of the Republican political tradition. This is inevitable, as Unionists seek to defend a position which Republicans seek to change. It doesn’t make much sense to outsiders – but then Fianna Fail and Fine Gael don’t make much sense to outsiders; Democrat and Republican don’t make much sense to outsiders; the lack of a Spanish Liberal party of any meaningful size doesn’t make much sense to outsiders.
The correspondent also mentioned Belgium – but Belgium makes his very point. The poorer French speakers, full of natural desire for income redistribution and centralism, vote for Socialists; the richer Dutch speakers, keen to maintain the wealth they view themselves to have created, vote for Conservatives and Liberals (and Flemish Nationalists). It is in fact a classic example of a divide where culture, economics and politics reinforce each other – just like our own.
Of course, we tend to maintain social circles of similar gene pools. This is why political change is invariably slow (to the point of turning many people off politics altogether), because we rarely spend time building coalitions for it outside our own gene pool (comfort zone). In Northern Ireland, it is also why Unionists haven’t noticed that Nationalists have overtaken them in Belfast City Council; why Nationalists can’t grasp why Unionists don’t see the innate benefit of their cause; and why Progressives think they are about to make a massive breakthrough for which there is actually no evidence (while Unionists think Progressives are about to sink without trace when in fact their vote is clearly being at least maintained).
It is also why people of lower educational attainment are in fact less likely to vote for change and why those of higher educational attainment are more inclined to soft-left options (those of higher educational attainment being the ones most likely to consider voting rationally rather than merely according to gene pool).
In the end, it’s why we profess to be fed up with politics – yet continue, largely, to vote the same way as we always did or not at all!