The People’s Party of Northern Ireland

For a debate to exist, there must be at least two sides.

Seymour Major laments that with the UCUNF project on its knees, he is left without a political home. The Alliance Party fits his non-sectarian principles, but not his conservatism. Jeff Peel expresses similar sentiments. After years of neglect, and after being made junior partners in their own political project, local Conservative activists were finally betrayed by their national leadership at Hatfield House, and several potential candidates walked. If normal politics is to survive in Northern Ireland, there can be no repeat of that experience.

The way to change politics in Northern Ireland is to shift the focus of political debate. The sectarian parties have been able to set the agenda by concentrating the debate on issues that suit them. Bread and butter issues such as the economy, education and public services have their airtime squeezed by the endless posturing of identity politics. The Alliance Party has struggled to make itself heard over the noise, and too often allows itself to be drawn into the middle of the sectarian argument, fighting on two fronts.

In order for the political debate in NI to be freed from the stranglehold of sectarianism, another debate must take its place – one which concentrates on bread and butter issues. And for a debate to exist, there must be at least two sides. It may seem paradoxical, but the way to boost the non-sectarian centre ground is to divide it into left and right and ramp the argument up to full volume.

The missing element in this picture is a centre-right equivalent of Alliance, and that’s where our disillusioned Conservative friends come in. They are potentially the core of a new political party – let’s call it the People’s Party after similar ones in other European countries. It would be independent of the Conservatives, although it could ally with them in Westminster in the same way that the Bavarian CSU does with the CDU in Germany. Complementing that arrangement, it would also build links with Fine Gael to co-ordinate policy on cross-border issues. But at its heart it would be a middle-NI party, committed to standing up for the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist alike.

Yes, it would be the natural political home of the garden centre Prod and the Catholic unionist, but only a fool would count on them turning out on polling day. The People’s Party should seek to maximise its potential support – targeting middle- and working-class households, on both sides of the divide. Naomi Long has proved that cross-community parties can garner broad support if they field committed, hard-working candidates. A strong People’s Party with talented members should encourage Alliance to up their game, and vice versa, allowing a mature left-right political debate to evolve. I am convinced that once Northern Ireland voters get a taste of such a debate they will find the sterile us-versus-them politics of the past much less impressive.

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11 thoughts on “The People’s Party of Northern Ireland

  1. Thank you for this post Andrewg.

    I have more to say on this subject and wont go into detail here. I will make a general comment about the broadcast media in Northern Ireland. There is nothing wrong, for example, with the Analysis provided by the BBC. Actually it is very good but I think that some journalists could, if they wanted to, make bread and butter politics more relevant.

    For example, I recall the first leader’s TV debate in NI, when Gerry Adams was asked about membership of the IRA. Such an old chestnut! The interviewer just seemed to allow the intra-tribal warfares to rage, so we effectively had two separate battles going on which gave the appearance of being unconnected. It would not be difficult for the media to change the line of questioning. I did not see all the broadcast or the second one but I certainly dont remember Gerry Adams being asked about Sinn Fein’s policy on Education.

  2. Great idea, but the stumbling block is the structure of the Assembly. I say this because:
    * Local council elections are irrelevant.
    * Westminster is decreasing in importance as powers are devolved to the Assembly.
    * The Assembly institutionalises the identity politics of the sectarian divide. That has to go if it is ever going to work long term.

    The Alliance party has been extraordinary successful in East Belfast – congratulations to Naomi Long. However, does this indicate a change in how East Belfast will vote in the next Assembly election? I wouldn’t take that for granted…

    PS: If we are going to have regional assemblies/Scottish parliament, we should do it properly and create a federal UK structure, including an English parliament, and have separate tax raising powers for the UK and the individual nations to pay for the public services each is responsible for. Legislatures and executives that spend but do not have to raise the corresponding taxes are a bad idea.

  3. You should set this party up. I think I would still be voting Alliance, but it would be nice to have someone to talk to who didn’t totally agree with me, but who was also sane.

  4. Seymour,

    I suspect the MSM goes along with the old politics because it’s easy. We in the blogosphere like to think of the media setting the agenda, but in most cases the media gives the public what it thinks they want. That’s not to say there aren’t good counterexamples, of course.

    Ed,

    Yes, the Assembly is biased against cross-community parties. And yes, this has got to go in the long term. But until normal politics is well established, there will be no appetite for removing designation. Chicken and egg. I have said before in this blog that cross-designation is the way around the problem – apparently some in Alliance have argued for it but haven’t made much headway.

    I think it’s a given that at least some of Naomi Long’s vote was against Robinson rather than for her personally. But a seat is a seat. Question is, can she build on her success?

    As for federalism, I’ve been saying that for years.

    WhyNotSmile,

    Being based in Galway, and a member of a Southern political party, I think the most I can offer for now is encouragement. But thanks for confirming my sanity; I wonder about that sometimes.

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  7. Time to dust this one down again maybe Andrew.

    Sylvia, Trevor, David, John, Basil……all these progressive, liberal, inclusive ex and potentially ex UUP ronin need a home or at least a support structure.

    Except instead of calling it the People’s Party of Northern Ireland what about the Northern Irish People’s Party – the party for Northern Irish people!

    And you’d have to let people designate until we replace designation with something better – just let it be an individual rather than a party matter so that it doesn’t take over the party agenda.

    • All those people would be welcome in the People’s Party. Whether it would make sense ideologically to have a catch-all mixture of left-liberals and right-liberals in one party is questionable though – I suspect that’s part of Alliance’s problem. And there’s one fatal flaw in your list – they’re all Unionists. Some sort of balance would be required.

  8. “And there’s one fatal flaw in your list – they’re all Unionists. Some sort of balance would be required.”

    But they’re all people who recognise that we need to start thinking like one Northern/northern Irish people and they’re all committed to the GFA which is our undertaking that whatever we decide on the union question we’re deciding it together.

    It’s interesting that once people leave the unionist parties and set themselves up as independents (Jim Allister excepted) they don’t seem to need to bang on about their unionism any more. If they’ve the right background (not sure about your ethnic suggestion btw – are the people attending Wesley, St Andrew’s and Dublin High still Huns or is it a northern phenomenon?) like Sylvia it just gets taken for granted. I think these people are clever enough to get the balance right.

    • It’s a particularly northern (but not exclusively Northern) phenomenon. Had an interesting conversation with my manager recently, where he mentioned that one of the fundamental cross-border differences is that there is no significant working-class Protestant population in most parts of the Republic. In Dublin “Protestant” is synonymous with “Privileged” – a class divide rather than an ethnic one.

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