Monday 24 May 2010

Nationalist unity call – inevitable but wrong

The news that the SDLP’s Declan O’Loan had mused about nationalist unity, before being slapped down by his party, is hardly surprising. It reflects an almost inevitable reaction to the calls for unionist unity.

Many have said it, and many are right – ‘unionist unity’ would lead almost inevitably to formal or de facto ‘nationalist unity’. Fermanagh and South Tyrone showed that nationalist voters are willing – even without any formal pacts – to vote for the strongest nationalist candidate when faced with unionist attempts to gain a seat by appealing to their tribe.

O'Loan said that his discussions with constituents on nationalist unity were very strongly supported, but he backed down and withdrew his original statement saying it "does not represent established party policy." The SDLP is reported to be "furious" and that O'Loan was "told in no uncertain terms to withdraw the statement".

However, statements made cannot be unmade. Eggs have been broken, and cannot be put back together. O’Loan had earlier said that: "I believe that a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for and I think that this means the formation of a new single nationalist party”.

The genie is now out of the bottle – and FST has shown how nationalist unity can work in the interests of the nationalist electorate. Clearly the Ritchie leadership of the SDLP does not agree, but she is, at best, a controversial leader. She does not have the full support of her whole party, despite what some might say. There must be considerable tensions in the SDLP at present, and the long run-up to next year’s Assembly election will not help.

A single nationalist party is, of course, no more rational than a single unionist party – except that nationalism needs to achieve a specific single act before it can move to ‘normal’ politics. Nationalism shares the need to succeed in breaking the link with Britain, regardless of the nature of politics that follows that step. Unionism, by contrast, is already operating within their chosen polity, and thus unionist unity (and indeed unionism itself) is a political nonsense.

However, according to the Good Friday Agreement, the act of breaking the link with Britain will be based upon a referendum when it appears that circumstances are favourable. There is no need, before that date, for nationalists to agree on much, and thus no need for a single nationalist party. Nationalists can be – and are – left or right wing, environmentalists, liberals or libertarians. There is no reason for them to all vote for a single party or a single candidate, and indeed in many cases this would be almost impossible. It would be better, and more democratic, for nationalists to vote according to their political preferences, with the constitutional question as a background. In other words, nationalists should be able to vote according to other issues – economic, social, environmental, etc – in the first instance, and then to transfer their vote to another nationalist party if they wish. In this way, the ‘issue’ politics are registered, as well as the constitutional’ politics.

Many voters have two concerns – an issue, and the constitutional issue – and voting pacts between competing parties allow the voters to register a particular socio-economic preference, without damaging the overall (background) nationalist vote. A single nationalist party, however, would disenfranchise many voters who wish to express a preference for, e.g. more or less public spending, or more respect for the environment, etc. Some voters who find themselves unable to express these sorts of preferences might simply not vote, and their voices would be unheard.

It is thus better for nationalism, for democracy, and for all of our futures, that there are a variety of competing parties within the nationalist family. Already, with only two – both irresponsibly statist – many voices are unheard. Nationalism needs more, not fewer, parties. The question of who their voters transfer to is less important. If a right-wing nationalist votes for a future right-of-centre nationalist party, but transfers to a right-of-centre unionist party, this is not illogical. The first preference – for a party within the nationalist family – would be sufficient to indicate a constitutional preference. If both nationalists and unionists vote in this way the ‘constitutional referendum’ nature of every Northern Irish election is retained, but a connection to ‘issues politics’ can grow. Of course, if the voter is also concerned to register a constitutional position, then s/he can transfer to another nationalist party.

Over time, parties based upon issues – economic, social, environmental, etc – would grow in strength, but in parallel within each ‘constitutional’ community. Voters may become more strategic, but the double meaning of each vote would not be lost.

So, Declan O’Loan, forget about 'nationalist unity' – it would diminish nationalism, both numerically and philosophically. Instead, try to offer the voters a choice of outcomes, and let the voter – who, like the customer, is king – decide what they want, instead of being faced with an uncompetitive monopoly.


New times, New approach said...

Your wholly rationalist philosophy (vote for whichever party best reflects your personal views) is surely better suited to a more normal 'democracy' than the quite odd one we find ourselves in today.
Unless we all feel that each of our political views are of roughly equivalent value then surely it is appropriate to subordinate some of them to certain one(s) of a greater importance. Even in a normal society one might feel some empathy with a particular party but be so put off by their policy on say immigration or perhaps education or maybe 'defence' that we simply could not bring ourselves to vote for them.
Surely in N.I. the key objective in many peoples' minds when they vote is the retention or abolition of the union with GB. It is not water rates or the niceties of each party's economic strategy.
Some unionists make a good point when they query whether a lot of middle class catholics who naturally vote for the SDLP would rush to vote for reunification in a referendum. You seem to tacitly recognise this yourself when you say, 'If a right-wing nationalist votes for a future right-of-centre nationalist party, but transfers to a right-of-centre unionist party, this is not illogical'
To allow us to reach the position where there can be a reasonable expectation of success in a referendum I think we need the reassurance that Nationalist votes are exactly that, votes for an Irish nation and not simply ones from Catholics voting for a Catholic party, but who would be in two minds about grasping the nettle of rejoining a republic which they only visit on occasional holidays and about which they know much less than they do of GB thanks to their daily British tabloid and their daily British / American television.
I think Nationalist unity is important enough that people's precise various political preferences might be expressed more completely once unity is achieved. We did not throw Britain of our backs in the republic by voting for a selection of parties who, to a greater or lesser extent, appeared to support separation. We did it by setting to one side the day to day politics and voting for one party to the exclusion of all others.
Margaret Ritchie has lost her temper with Declan O'Loan primarily because she knows any realignment to focus on the currently paramount objective would not end up with her having any position of importance. Even when the SDLP had better, braver leaders they still achieved nothing at all of substance but instead piggy-backed on what Britain and the Unionists were, after a 40 year war, forced into.
Consequently I agree with Declan when he says that, 'a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for' and I hope he now has the courage to bid farewell to the SDLP.

Colm said...

The danger of having several nationalist parties with their own unique ideologies is that the constitutional issue will become of secondary concern. Emphasising bread and butter issues inevitably causes people to lose sight of the bigger picture. There are many examples of this in Irish history, such as Eamonn de Valera's Economic War and the Official Republican Movement's sacrifice of republicanism on the altar of left wing idealism. Recently, the SDLP has been more concerned with attracting unionist transfers by playing up the "post-nationalist" card than convincing them of the merits of a United Ireland.

The Irish Parliamentary Party achieved more in laying the groundwork for Irish self determination than any political movement to that date. Without the overwhelming majority achieved by Sinn Fein in 1918, Irish independence as it exists in the 26 counties may not exist.

The constitutional referendum won't cater for transferred preferences. It's a simple case of yes or no. Until we have achieved our goal, encouraging people to vote on other issues will only muddy the waters. A United Ireland can be achieved sooner if it is the main priority of a single united front.

The last election in the six counties showed the desire of nationalism to work together. I wholeheartedly welcome the publicity generated by Declan O'Loan and hope that it opens up a real debate on the issue.

Seymour Major said...

This ia a most interesting post.

The SDLP has an interesting title with indirect roots to both the Irish and British Labour Parties and the Old Irish Nationalist Party. During the troubles, they had their niche but they have lost out because Sinn Fein competed on their political ground.

In Fact, the SDLP is so similar to Sinn Fein both in terms of their Nationalist policies and their Left wing policies that, in reality, Nationalists dont have much of a choice at all.

Of course, there is little sign that a centre-right Nationalist party will emerge. If it did, it would certainly get my second preference vote. People are telling me that Fianna Fail will fill that void. I dont agree with that. Fianna Fail are populist. Populism and corruption tend to go hand in hand as policies are tailored to suit the highest bidder. Fine Gail would fill that void better but they seem to have no aspiration to organise politically in Northern Ireland.

On the Unionist side, there is no sign of a Unionist centre left party, unless you happen to live in North Down. The British Labour Party still has a phobia about standing in Northern Ireland. Maybe now the election is over, they will have a re-think.

Unless something very unusual is about to fall out of the sky, we seem to be a long way away from the sort of politics that you discuss.

Horseman said...

New times, New approach, Colm,

I am very conscious of the need to keep the constitutional question at the centre of politics in the north, but I fear that one-size-fits-all would alienate too many voters. Imagine if the 'one size' was a party that 'took the oath' - many republicans would not vote for it. If the 'one size' party was abstentionist then I suppose some soft nationalists might not vote for it. Would soft nationalist business owners vote for a 32-county socialist SF? Would committed republicans vote for a centrist 'soft nationalist' party?

It would be better, in my view, for several possibilities to exist, as long as their position on the constitution is clear and consistent. Let there be competition on the nationalist side - but let's make it clear that it is a nationalist side.

My preference (as regular readers might remember) would be for Fianna Fáil to move north, thus providing a professional, right-of-centre party that is undeniably nationalist. FF would probably put the SDLP out of business (no loss) and nationalism would then have two 32-county parties - one left, one right. In addition, the Greens are 'ambivalent' about the border, and operate in partnership with their southern sister-party (and also those in GB). I see them as another potential all-Ireland party.

Better to have three all-Ireland parties than the current situation, where 40% of nationalists vote for a partitionist oath-taking party.

Of course the scale of intra-nationalist transferring of votes is uncertain. Would SF voters transfer to FF, or vice-versa? I suppose it would depend on the strength of their (the voters) commitment to the national question. There might be a certain level of 'issue' transfers, from, say, FF to the UUP - but if this were likely, it would push parties like the UUP to moderate their unionism. That in itself might be a good result. In order to attrct transfers from nationalist parties of a similar socio-economic tendency unionism would have to drop large chunks of its underlying irrationality, and recognise the logic of all-Ireland co-operation. And that, surely, is a move in the right direction too.

Ciarán said...

As said previously, SF and the SDLP are actually almost identical in terms of political policy, they only exist as two separate parties because of bad blood and hangovers from the civil war. This is true of parties both sides of the border.

Perhaps nationalists don't really have choice in this respect anyway, and perhaps it's time to do away with irrelevant old divisions.

In principle, though, Horseman is right, but so is New Times in saying that NI is not your normal democracy - it is a colonial tagalong stuck in limbo and has been since it's creation. If the second world war had broken out a few years earlier it wouldn't exist at all. The nationalist philosophy is ultimately based on the idea that the ultimate goal of Irish unity must be achieved before people can start voting for their personal politics, otherwise they could be stuck in the UK voting on who will administer British rule in the 6 counties.

New times, New approach said...

Horseman, I feel that what you describe is an ideal world in which Nationalist parties might each represent a segment of the spectrum of left to right politics, while at the same time being totally united by the shared fervour of their nationalism.
Are you certain that each vote for the SDLP will be translated into a Yes vote in a referendum? I hope you're right, but I seriously doubt it. And, if it isn't the case, then isn't it time, rather than blithely adding the SDLP vote to the SF vote and comparing with the Unionist total, we set out to understand why it isn't and to try to convert those votes. A first step on that path could be an absorption of SDLP into SF (unfortunately we can't just wish them away) or the creation of a 'new' i.e. SF with another name, unreservedly nationalist party. The total vote for that party would then give us a much clearer view of what a referendum outcome would be. It would also wake up those people who have voted for the SDLP simply because they are a Catholic party and cause them to ask themselves if they really want integration with what for them (with the exception of the odd county GAA match) really is a neighbouring country that they know little about.
You query whether 'soft nationalists' would vote for an abstentionist party or a 32 county socialist SF and I believe this strikes to the heart of the issue. If they wouldn't vote for abstentionism, then why not? Do they feel happier living under Westminster governance and ensuring that they are represented at the heart of British government? Have they reservations about a 32 county socialist republic and feel happier voting for a S(ocial)DLP who sit meekly on British back benches?
Not every Protestant is pro Union and unfortunately not every Catholic wishes us to leave the UK. A fair proportion of them work for the British Civil Service (at the moment anyway) and have developed an affection for a steady job and the King's shilling - 'long sucking the hind tit makes us fork-tongued on the partition bit.'
These fears are well supported by the annual Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys which consistently suggest that around 25% of Catholics would vote for the Union. I think that the majority of those votes currently go to the SDLP because to do otherwise (with the possible exception of ones for Alliance) is like a turkey voting for Christmas.
It may be an unpleasant reality to face, but if so, then the sooner we face it the better. If the vote becomes what government do you want to live under rather than which religion do you prefer then we can't rely on all current SDLP ones and the first step in addressing that problem is to understand it. The formation of a party whose raison d'etre is reunification will lay bare the extent of the problem.
If we have people like Declan helping to convert the unsure then so much the better. Thankfully we can rely on Margaret's help as she discourages current SDLP members and voters with her childish egotism and lack of political nous.

shane said...

Fianna Fail may be too tainted by the cutbacks necessitated by the Recession. It may not be fair, but there will still be that perception.

What about a party modelled on the Christian Democratic parties on the continent? I think there could be appeal for that, no? The Democratic Union of Catalonia are an example of a pro-independence (Catalan Nationalist) party that are centre-right (Christian Democrat). It could articulate a message of standing up for small businesses, families, communities, and farmers.

Horseman said...

New times, New approach,

If I read you correctly, you would see the O'Loanian realignment as a sort of spring-cleaning. Those nationalists who are unequivocal about reunification would join SF, and the rest would go ... where exactly?

Then, if you are right, we would see that, instead of a 42% constituency for reunification, it would be only around 35%. And that would, for a generation if not forever, kill the nationalist project. Hmm, I'm having trouble warming to this.

I don't think that the mere fact of setting up a new umbrella nationalist party would 'convert' the 25% (your figure, not mine) of Catholics who are closet small-u unionists. I think that reality and rational arguments are needed to win over not just the wavering Catholics but also some (most/all) Protestants. I believe that NI would be better off in a UI, just as I believe that the south is better off for having gotten out of the UK. The problem is persuading the unpersuaded. A new party, per se, will not do that.

The issue is not whether we have one or two or three parties, but whether those parties can make a good case for reunification. I think a bad party (the SDLP) makes a bad case, and a 'whiff of cordite' party (SF) are not the best vehicles for persuading anyone of anything. Yes, new parties please - but not one, lets have several. Let's have a real republican party - one that can win the confidence of many more people. But it can never cover all of the various political spectra without being a hopelessly populist mess. Much better to have a social-democratic party of the scandinavian sort, and a christian-democratic party of German standards, along with a green party that is worth its name. Let these parties robustly govern, at local and at NI level, and let them convince the majority of the electorate that they are the best - and that the best option for NI is as part of a new better Ireland in a united Europe.

The SDLP cannot be one of the future parties - they're just too bad, and while SF won't go away soon then they should try to morph into a real republican social-democratic party.

As things stand at the moment nationalism is stuck with fairly bad representation (as is unionism, of course). The challenge is to improve that representation, not to artificially limit voter choice!

Horseman said...


Please, not another partitionist party!

I would prefer that the southern parties move north, to provide real choice, and to ensure that the voices of the whole country are represented in all of the fora - Dáil, Assembly, etc.

Let the SDLP be swallowed up, and let the unionists be shown to be ineffectual and marginal (as they have already shown themselves to be in Westminster and in Strasbourg).

hoboroad said...

Declan O'Loan has had the party whip removed by SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie according to Mick Fealty at Slugger O'Toole.

New times, New approach said...

Horseman - me again. We don't fundamentally disagree. I wish your vista of genuinely Nationalist parties were possible and you misunderstand me slightly. I am not for a moment advocating that we damage the nationalist vote by giving them only a hardline choice of a single party with, as you succinctly put it 'a whiff of cordite about it'. My key point is that we won't succeed in a referendum by deceiving ourselves into thinking that a non-unionist vote is undoubtedly a pro unification one. You admit that 'The SDLP cannot be one of the future parties - they're just too bad' but you also seem convinced that (in the absence of other additional parties) they should be preserved as a separate entity - to what end? They might successfully reflect the 'don't rock the boat' views of a fair proportion of pseudo nationalists and Catholic closet unionists, but how does that advance the cause of reunification - or is that to be subordinated to a 'parties for all shades of watery Nationalism' philosophy. The SDLP are just a nuisance - integrating or recreating them as a real nationalist party with driven leadership is better than coninuing to put up with them on the basis that they provide variety. It would also show us how many of their supporters will vote for a new party with no (being brand new) strong cordite whiff but also one that is unmistakably very serious about reunification rather than one currently smiling coyly at the less extreme breeds of Unionism.
You speculated that this could reduce the 'constituency for reunification'. I would see it more as like the SDLP tide going out and we would then see who was wearing reunification swimming trunks and who was wearing nothing. That will show us the extent of the problem. To persevere with the SDLP and to keep adding their votes to SF ones without deducting about a third of them is just to ignore it.
Now, if you have worked out alternative feasible strategies to identify how many proper nationalists are hidden away within the SDLP and how to appeal to the rest, then I will buy a hat and take it off to you.

shane said...

Horseman, there's no reason why such a CD party would be partitionist. Fianna Fail will take a massive hit at the next elections, as is inevitable for governments presiding over recessions, and will leave a gap for ordinary FF voters who might want to punish the party but still not stray far from their ideals. A CD party could easily cut a niche for itself under the STV system.

Horseman said...

ButShane, there is already a 'Christian Democrat' party in Ireland (though it doesn't openly call itself that). The problem is that it is the partitionist Fine Gael party, so how could anyone hope to set up a new 32-county CD party in direct opposition to it?

To a certain extent the CD position is taken, and thus lost. FG show zero interest in moving north, and are more friendly with the unionists than with nationalists. I think Michael Collins would be ashamed of them, but that was then and this is now.

A NI-based CD party would end up as a de facto northern party, so I would not be greatly in favour.

Yes, FF are a bit tainted at present, but their survival skills are second to none, so I expect them to be still in the thick of things in 10 years time.

Realignments, of course, can never be limited to one party - they have a knock-on effect on all others. So if FF realigned, it would push SF in different directions - and maybe Labour too. We could end up with a situation where FF contest in the north, and some SDLPers move to SF. SF would move towards the centre to counter FF, leaving a gap on the left that Labour (Irish, not British) could enter. Within a brief period we could find that nationalism north and south has a good choice of parties. And if, at the same time, these parties cleaned up their acts and really grew a set of principles, they could become more attractive to the non-voters, centrists and soft unionists.

shane said...


FG was a Christian Democratic party before Garret Fitzgerald, but now it's really an alliance of a lot of different elements. It's true that it's a member of the European Peoples Party. Fianna Fail would be a member of that organization also only FG used their veto to stop them from joining. I think FF are probably more of a CD party than FG. Because Ireland transitioned from an agrarian peasant economy to a post-industrial globalised economy in just a generation (=> the country missed out on industrialization) the southern Irish electorate are among the most conservative in western Europe. As, to an extent, are the Northern Nationalist electorate, only Nationalist parties do not reflect that.

I agree with you that Fianna Fail will weather this storm. It's often said that they are the natural party of government. And if the Euro keeps collapsing in value, it will have a hugely positive effect on the Irish economy, meaning that by the next election there could be a 'feel good' aura, helping them to some extent.

The Physicist said...

I don't think people still get that 40% of the nationalist vote still vote for what is termed the SDLP and a growing population of nationalists are neither registering nor voting.

Much of the reason why people vote for the SDLP, as people have for the Irish Parlimentary Party, The Home Rule parties, the Irish Nationalist Party and indeed Bernedette Devlin was because they represented that party in Westminster, Seanad Éireann, because they were also "non abstentionist".

This may be to a lot of Republicans' chargin but it's a fact that that choice was given to them. It may be declining but it still exists. They voted for the SDLP and they didn't vote for parties like éirigí or Republican Sinn Féin or even Fianna Fáil. Dido with Kieran Deeney if he got elected. You cannot simply treat this a mental illness that could be treated by republican left, right and centre parties. That isn't what these people voted for and all you're suggesting is a more amicable substitute.

Now of course this doesn't mean that all SDLP voters are bone fide nationalists, then again this is never a perfect border poll and people can vote for whoever they like whenever they like. Sinn Fein may say they're "Soft on Unionism", the SDLP would argue that wanting a United Ireland is not a precusor for having equality in Ireland and both will bicker that they don't really mean what they say.

But then no one seems to care about the nationalists who vote Alliance, People before Profit or Green here, or nationalists tactically voting for the lesser evils in Unionism.

Anonymous said...

"Much better to have a social-democratic party of the scandinavian sort, and a christian-democratic party of German standards, along with a green party that is worth its name."

It's clear you want a Republican Left Wing Party, a Republican Right Wing Party and a Republican Green Party. But really Horseman, you fail to acknowledge that 40% of nationalists much to your own chargrin accept the policy

People who voted for Durkan, Ritchie and McDonnell (and you have to include some Sinn Féin voters for that last one) voted for a party that sits in Westminster. They're not going to become some Republican Christian Democratic or Social Democratic party because you want them too.

Regardless of how much you say it's "bad" to do otherwise, the SDLP spliting between Christian Democratic and Social Democratic Republican groups is as likely and as selfdefeating as Provisional Sinn Féin deciding to merge into a new Fine Gael to compete against Fianna Fail SDLP.

Any new nationalist party, would have to like the origional Nationalist party have to take the issue of "participation in a foreign government" seriously and at least make it a voluntary option, anything else would go against the wishes of most of the 40% of the nationalist people.