Many see the current political situation in Northern Ireland as a mere continuation of the half-millennia-long struggle once defined primarily by religious identification: a war to be won by a population battle. This mainstream view of today’s situation, however, is an oversimplification of a complex situation that has evolved extensively over the past twenty years. The legislative power landscape has been marked by a significant shift in political identities—a shift that mirrors the global, and specifically Western, trends of polarization and secularization. Many view the Good Friday Agreement (GFA)—the 1998 peace agreement ending the thirty years of sectarian violence known as the Troubles—and its accompanying cessation of regular Irish Republican Army (IRA) activity as indicative of a reconciliation within the Northern state. In reality, the territory has been increasingly struck by extreme political gamesmanship—most visible in the ongoing two-year period during which Northern Ireland has had no functioning government, an unintended consequence of the GFA rules. Brexit’s threat to strip Northern Ireland of European Union (EU) membership is worsening polarization—in turn renewing talks of a United Ireland with a seriousness that has not existed for decades. Meanwhile, political identities have grown more secular as economic concerns have assumed priority in the minds of voters and as global progressive social trends have shepherded modernity to Ireland. The reestablishing of a stable government will depend upon understanding how such new trends are affecting Northern Ireland. This understanding will be equally important in facilitating a more permanent solution to the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland as many on both sides of the Nationalist-Unionist aisle are realizing the impermanency of the Good Friday Agreement and as Brexit continues to be a divisive topic.
An analysis of Northern Ireland’s contemporary politics must be prefaced with a brief discussion of its history since it was partitioned from the rest of Ireland. The political arena in Northern Ireland has been traditionally structured around the debate over unity with southern Ireland—championed by Nationalists—and continued identity with Britain—championed by Unionists—a point of ongoing tension since the state’s inception in 1921 with the partitioning. The tension caused by the existence of the new state, combined with Nationalist frustrations over discrimination against Catholics, resulted in thirty years of guerrilla violence that were euphemistically termed “The Troubles” (Congressional). Unionist resistance mounted with the fear of pro-nationalist measures marginalizing their British identity (Congressional). The Good Friday Agreement ended this era, eliminating physical manifestations of the border—a reality revealed by Conor McCabe’s testimony in “How Brexit Threatens Peace in Northern Ireland” that “were it not for the change in speed-limit signs—the republic uses kilometers, while Northern Ireland uses miles—I would not notice the border at all.” The compromise also introduced the consent principle, which committed the solution of the debate to referendum in time (Congressional). Shortly following the negotiations, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was officially decommissioned. From the 1920s to 1986, Sinn Fein stood as the party of socialist republicans and also as the political affiliate of the IRA, an entity which saw itself as the military protectorate of an island-wide republic declared in 1916 (McGlinchey 23). At the opposite end of the spectrum resided—and continues to reside—the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), hardline proponents of continued UK membership, composed mainly of Protestant loyalists (Congressional). The politics of Northern Ireland today are heavily influenced by the sensitivities of this history. However, they have undergone much change since the global spotlight was largely removed from the region at the outset of the twenty-first century.
Many consider political strife in Northern Ireland to be a phenomenon of the pre-1998 era, viewing the Good Friday Agreement as an indicator of permanent sectarian healing to come. As articulated by Ed O’Loughlin, the agreement was “hailed as a triumph of moderation, a hard-won compromise ending thirty years of bloodshed” (O’Loughlin). Chief among the reasons for this viewpoint was the fact that it was negotiated by political moderates, John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), both of whom won the Nobel Peace Prize that year (O’Loughlin). In 1998, the majority parties that represented the Nationalist and Unionist identities—the SDLP and the UUP—“were moderates, representatives of a new political center that not only held together, but had won a great victory” (O’Loughlin). Meanwhile, the two hardline groups, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, held minority status (Congressional).
The notion that healing was generated by the GFA was bolstered by the decommissioning of the IRA, the general normalization of society, and an accepted reality that a united island was unlikely (McGlinchey 109). These major events created a mainstream view that Northern Irish politics were entering a phase of reconciliation—an understanding that has persisted to this day due to the absence of the kind of high-profile violence that was common during the Troubles era. Many still herald the GFA as the dawn of a new era of peace, yet the perception that Northern Ireland is moving in a direction of bridging sectarian divides is wholly inaccurate, as politics have instead undergone marked polarization. Political polarization, a recent global trend, refers to the increasingly divisive nature of competing political groups’ agendas and rhetoric, as well as the breakdown of cross-party cooperation and compromise. As O’Loughlin asserts, “Rather than promoting moderation and reconciliation, the GFA instead pushed Northern Ireland’s voters on both sides of the sectarian divide away from the center, and toward the extremes,” which explains why Sinn Fein, and the DUP, eclipsed the moderate parties in majority status in 2002 and 2007 respectively (O’Loughlin). These hardline parties have only increased their majorities in the previous decade. According to the Congressional Research Service, 2017 was the first year in which the SDLP won zero Westminster (British Parliament) seats—a radical decline from their twenty-eight seats in 1998. Though Sinn Fein has lost the support of many radicals, it has more than made up for that loss with its addition of moderates, which has been facilitated even more so as of late by Brexit—the pending exit of Britain from the European Union, determined via referendum in 2016 (Congressional Research Service). This power shift clearly supports the argument that politics in Northern Ireland are becoming more polarized. This argument is further demonstrated by the legislative paralysis manifested in the two-year absence of a devolved government, which is the power structure in which some Westminster parliamentary powers are granted to the Assembly of Northern Ireland. Evidence of the divide is offered by the 2017 elections, with Sinn Fein winning its greatest seat count ever and minority moderate parties being all but eliminated (Congressional; Kelly).
Divisiveness encouraged by the trend of polarization is exacerbated by the structure of Northern Ireland’s government. To theoretically facilitate cross-party cooperation, the Northern Ireland executive is composed of a Nationalist minister and a Unionist minister, both of whom are required for the government to exist (Kelly). Following an energy scandal under DUP Minister Arlene Foster, Sinn Fein Minister Martin McGuiness resigned in protest of Foster’s refusal to step down, effectively collapsing the devolved government and returning rule to Westminster (McGlinchey 205; Meagher). McGuiness’s resignation speech clearly demonstrates the polar shift that has taken place over the past twenty years as both groups have retreated from the attempt at reconciliation in 1998:
At times I have stretched and challenged republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours. It is a source of deep personal frustration that those efforts have not always been reciprocated. […] The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches have never been fully embraced by the DUP (qtd. in McGlinchey 205).
The sharpening of the divide that has emerged between the Unionist and Nationalist identities is significant because it has collapsed the structure of the Executive branch, demonstrating that a rewriting of the architecture of Northern Ireland’s government is needed. Such relations also expose a grim outlook for the potential for compromise on the topic of Brexit, leading many to question if a solution is possible.
Those who counter the argument that political cooperation in Northern Ireland is regressing employ the argument of a “reformed Sinn Fein” (McNicholl). Traditionalists argue that in attempting to legitimize itself in the eyes of other parties and the moderate public, Sinn Fein has abandoned its republican principles (McGlinchey 47). This analysis, however, overlooks a key understanding—the difference between the old majority Nationalist party, the SDLP, and the twenty-first-century version of Sinn Fein. Some reporters point to the end of violence and mellowing of Nationalist demands—essentially the reformed Sinn Fein—as evidence of depolarization in Northern Ireland (McNicholl). Tactics have indeed changed. However, the groups who hold power have also changed and the ideological history of these new majority groups, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and sustained agendas are furthering polarization. Since 2007, Sinn Fein has increasingly pushed the moderate SDLP out of politics (Congressional). The DUP did the same to the UUP in the early 2000s (Congressional). Though Sinn Fein is moderate relative to its former self, it is more hardline than the SDLP was when it held power. Therefore, the leading Nationalist party in Northern Ireland today is more extreme than the leading Nationalist party in 1998, even as Sinn Fein has mellowed out. Politically speaking, the difference between the 1990s and now is that such outspoken groups did not wield majority power, even though then republican and Unionist hardline demands were more extreme. The extreme perspectives were shed to broaden their electorate, but the passion of their ideologies remains.
McGuinness’s reference to his own challenge to traditional Nationalist beliefs alludes to a political polarization in a different context—one within the Nationalist identity. In the discussion of Irish politics, the media often paints a picture of two fronts: Catholic and Protestant. For example, journalist Kevin Meagher generalizes Catholic voting patterns in this way: “The ground has shifted dramatically in recent years, with Catholics now outnumbering Protestants at every level of the education system. Let’s put it this way, the voters who will ensure there’s a united Ireland have already been born.” Though this characterization holds some truth, it overlooks a crucial phenomenon that occurred as Sinn Fein distanced itself from its pure republican, IRA-involved, 1970s self—the fracturing of the Nationalist front (McGlinchey 197). After the party ended its abstention from Leinster House—the Republic of Ireland’s parliament—and accepting the Good Friday Agreement’s consent principle, many traditionalists ran from the party, accusing it of legitimizing the partition of Ireland and selling out to the British (McGlinchey 1-2). Today, many traditionalists, who are mainly Catholics, abstain altogether from voting in the Northern state (McGlinchey 83). Marisa McGlinchey, in Unfinished Business: The Politics of “Dissident” Irish Republicanism, pieces together testimonies of hundreds of Nationalists that have left Sinn Fein to form “true” republican groups. She points out that there has been a complete break in contact between mainstream Sinn Fein and radical republican groups, which supports the idea that divisiveness is becoming a dominant force in Northern Ireland’s politics. The emergence of intra, in addition to inter, party polarization highlights how this global trend has reached Northern Ireland and affected its politics. Intra-party division, like polarization, is not unique to Ireland, but is a global phenomenon, existing as well in the United States. Catholic disunity caused by the prioritization of economic issues is also evidence of secular reform in politics.
The political identity of Sinn Fein, the traditional representative of Catholics, has evolved in ways that reflect not just the global narrative of polarization, but also that of secularization—the decreased influence of religion in both politics and society. According to McGlinchey, “Sinn Fein is targeting a much wider constituency than its previous focus on the republican constituency” (189). They have widened their target audience by moving away from their traditional Catholic working-class constituents in an effort to encapsulate the middle class—a move that has been termed embourgeoisement by independent republican Tommy Kearney (McGlinchey 198). Sinn Fein’s addition of an economically-driven anti-Brexit stance to their platform, as well as their role as the opponent to DUP-backed anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage legislation is clear evidence of the secular trend (O’Loughlin). Sinn Fein would have opposed such reform in the days of stronger religious ties. Mirroring the progressive reform of the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein’s new rhetoric has lured away Protestants—traditionally Unionist supporters—who view the conservative social policies of DUP as unacceptable (Kelly).
This reality has been compounded by the phenomenon of Brexit. The threat of losing EU membership is jolting some traditional Unionists out of their allegiances and reluctantly into Sinn Fein’s camp—evidence of the fact that economy is eclipsing religion as a political determinant (Meagher; McCabe). According to a BBC poll, almost 30% of those in Northern Ireland “said the UK’s decision to leave the EU had made them more likely to vote for a United Ireland” (Meagher). This attraction to Nationalism, and effectively Sinn Fein, suggests that the Nationalist-Unionist debate is gradually divorcing itself from the Catholic-Protestant identity struggle. The replacement of division rooted in religion with that of other topics—such as the economy—serves as a possible cause of polarization, as economic consensus could previously often be achieved across religious lines. The secular topic of Brexit has worsened polarization between Sinn Fein and the DUP as “it has given Sinn Fein the political momentum to push for a public referendum on Northern Ireland’s future,” a move that is the unconditional antithesis of the DUP’s raison d’être (Symington). Brexit has encouraged polarization in its “fueling [of] debates about identity and sovereignty that common membership of the supranational body had deemphasized over the years” (Ó Beacháin 262).
Appreciating the changing political identities in Northern Ireland will be especially significant for managing the economic crises posed by Brexit. Recognizing rising secular attitudes is imperative for leaders to understand that Protestant support at the ballot box for their religious affiliates—the Unionists—is not a given. Though many Protestants support Unionism in an effort to protect themselves from what they see as marginalization in the face of a Catholic majority, the economic ramifications of Brexit pose more immediate consequences, as “the republic [of Ireland] is Northern Ireland’s single biggest export market” (McCabe) and as Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry is wholly dependent on an island-wide economy (Will).
As calls are made for a referendum on unification in the near future, many point to the projections of Catholic majority status in the population as a key determinant of the future of the state’s membership. Such evidence is presented by Kevin Meagher in “Reasons Why a United Ireland is Definitely on the Way,” as “Catholics now outnumber Protestants at every level of the education system.” Although this is not a fact to be ignored, the line of reasoning that individuals will vote Nationalist because of their religious affiliation is outdated. Paul Nolan quiets such antiquated assumptions in his discussion of an impending Catholic population majority in the state. The BBC reports, “he [Nolan] says unionists should not be too alarmed because you cannot necessarily equate being a Catholic with supporting a United Ireland” (Gordon). The younger generation that will decide the future of the state at the ballot box is also heavily influenced by the worldwide progressive trend toward economic globalization and greater social interconnectedness. Such trends align with EU membership, as well as progressive social reforms, which would be upheld by joining the newly progressive-leaning Republic of Ireland. This is not to say that traditional familial ideological affiliation will not play a role in the decisions of voters, but other factors are becoming increasingly important.
The political landscape in Northern Ireland has been following a pattern of increasing polarization since 1998 and, contrary to the general public’s conceptions, is increasingly less determined by religious affiliation. Demographic shifts, republican disunity, new strategies by Sinn Fein and the DUP, and the looming issues of a collapsed Stormont (the government of Northern Ireland), as well as Brexit, have crafted a modern and complex political arena that is indisputably different from the narrative of the twentieth century. “It was both the single market and the Good Friday Agreement that made the border invisible and ensured that peace became a viable, ongoing reality,” asserts journalist Conor McCabe, and, thus, as both are now called into question, the fact that the political reality of the twenty-first century is undoubtedly different from that of the twentieth must be appreciated. Understanding these complex identities and their updated political motivators will prove crucial to negotiating and establishing a more permanent solution to Northern Ireland, as well as solving its economic position as a member or non-member of the European Union. The political shifts in Northern Ireland serve as evidence of increasingly secular and polar politics globally—especially in the United States and continental Europe. This new reality forecasts a concerning outlook for the future of domestic stability around the world and confirms the long-coming divorce of politics and religion.
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