On Thursday, the DUP outpolled the Ulster Unionists by 3.5:1, despite allowing them a free run in Fermanagh/South Tyrone which alone accounted for nearly 30% of their total. Meanwhile Sinn Féin outpolled the SDLP by almost 2.5:1, with half the SDLP’s vote coming in the three seats they held (but still lost).
The Ulster Unionists pledged to come back. The SDLP pledged to listen. They’ve been pledging that for 15 years. The decline has continued. The SDLP mustered just 400 votes in one constituency and 167 in another – we are reaching a position where in some parts the brand means nothing at all. The Ulster Unionists didn’t even risk their deposit in three cases.
The “centre ground” is crumbling apparently, but in fact the Alliance Party and Greens largely held their ground, seeing their vote share decrease narrowly but total vote in fact increase. So the real “centre ground” had an average night – no better, but no worse.
To many, the obvious thing is for the “Centre Ground” (implicitly including the SDLP and Ulster Unionists in most people’s minds) to cooperate more effectively. We should not underestimate this desire. But it does hide one obvious problem – the SDLP and Ulster Unionists are profoundly communal (or, if you like, sectarian) parties.
The crux of both parties’ problems is that they both deny the reality of Northern Ireland as it is. In Northern Ireland, 85%+ of people grow up with either a British or Irish national identity reinforced by attendance at either a state or maintained school and followed up by choices in leisure and often residence which continue to fall along those sectarian fault lines. That national identity is something into which we are born, and it is this which determines whether we are Unionist or Nationalist or, at very least, whether our broad constitutional preference is pro-UK or pro-United Ireland. The notion that we make this selection “rationally”, as implicitly claimed by one MLA at the weekend, is simply ignorant of reality.
Lest anyone doubt that our society being divided in this way is reality and not just stereotype, I tallied a box on Thursday night which was DUP 89%, Alliance 8%, UU 2%, Green 1%; and another which was SDLP 47%, SF 40%, Alliance 8%, DUP 2%, Green 1%. So one was 100% non-Nationalist; the other was 98% non-Unionist. Anyone who denies this profound division denies reality.
The nature of our society means that putting a constitutional preference front and centre of your programme is instantly sectarian – because it includes one side and excludes the other (the very definition of sectarianism). The notion that people born into a British national identity can be “talked round” to a United Ireland or that those born into an Irish national identity can be made suddenly to love Britishness is simply fantasy. This is why the very foundation of the Agreement is enabling both identities to be experienced as thoroughly as possible – which is why among other things it really shouldn’t be a problem for Unionists to play a role in the UK Government (playing a full role in British national life) or for Nationalists to have a vote for President of Ireland (playing a full role in Irish national life).
Therefore, the “Centre Ground” should be focused on those determined to enable citizens in Northern Ireland to play a full role in the life of the nation they choose (accepting the limitations of sovereignty one way or the other), but cannot pick a particular side – as soon as it does that, it is back in the sectarian trenches where it will inevitably be defeated by whichever of the two big parties is in the same trench. Ultimately the aim is to reframe the debate towards maximising opportunity for all, rather than in a particular constitutional end game for some.
Ultimately this gives “Liberal Unionists” and SDLP supporters a choice. Do they wish to continue being trounced electorally while pursuing an unreal pretence that constitutional aspirations and ultimately national identities are “rational”, or do they wish to build a Northern Ireland in which everyone gets to play a full role in the life of the nation into which they were born while also fulfilling the responsibilities and enjoying the rights that come with being a citizen of this particular jurisdiction? Those who choose the former will just continue to lose with decreasing purpose; but those who choose the latter will find renewed purpose in building a real “Centre Ground” and a proper Progressive Movement fit to fulfill the aspirations of all our citizens in the 21st century.