Wednesday 2 June 2010

A dearth of defections

Northern Ireland's politicians are remarkably promiscuous. They have a tendency to hop from political bed to political bed that is unmatched in most countries. But their political promiscuity seems to be entirely restricted to their own political blocks – unionists happily swap the UKUP for the TUV, or the UUP for the DUP; some mix in periods of 'independence', but always (à la Hermon) within the wider family.

Nationalists are perhaps a little more loyal to their partners, but there are still some defections – from the SDLP to Sinn Féin, from Sinn Féin to 'independence' or even Fianna Fáil, and so on.

Politicians who start out in the 'centre' also tend to stay there – there is movement between the Alliance Party and the Greens, for example, but almost no movement through the invisible walls to either unionism or nationalism.

Lastly, the small left-wing group tends to intermarry as well – the labels change, and the parties merge or disappear, but the affiliation rarely changes.

An examination of political affiliations over the past 40 or so years shows an almost complete dearth of real defections – from one side of the house to the other. This blog knows of no example whatsoever where a member of a nationalist party has crossed over to a unionist party, or vice-versa. The only recent defection – remarkable in its rarity – was one last year from the centre (Alliance Party) to the unionist camp (Tory Party) – Ian Parsley.

Perhaps there have been quiet defections at the level of the ordinary members or supporters, but at the level of the elected representatives there have been almost none at all. This contrasts greatly with both Britain (where, for example, the recent Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, was elected as a Tory but switched to Labour in 1999), the USA, where politicians sometimes switch from Republican to Democrat or the reverse, or the south, where there have been high-profile defections including that of Michael O'Leary who defected to Fine Gael while he was leader of the Labour Party!

In other places, it seems, politicians join parties on the grounds of principle, and reassess their membership against changes in their own, and the parties, principles. In Northern Ireland, while this does happen, it happens only within the parameters of the main blocks. These blocks give the appearance of being hermetically sealed – people are born into a block and remain within it. Occasionally a person will appear in a block that is not the 'normal' one for their ethno-religious background – but even they will then tend to stay within that block for the whole of their political life. Billy Leonard, although a Shankill Road Protestant and ex-RUC reservist, took no active part in politics until he joined the SDLP, and from there he moved to Sinn Féin. None of the SDLP or IIP's Protestant members – Ivan Cooper, Eddie Espie, John Turnley, etc – appear to have ever been 'unionists'. The very recent, and fleeting, appearance of Catholic unionists – Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson flirted with the Tories last year – shows the same trait. Neither was ever known to have been a 'nationalist'.

The strict and rigid separation of the blocks suggests that issues of pure principle are not really at play here. There is no logical reason why a Protestant is more likely to be a unionist than a Catholic is, or why a Catholic is more likely to be a nationalist than a Protestant is. But reality shows that that is the pattern. And, as the dearth of defections shows, once a person is born (literally, or in a political sense) into one block, he or she will almost always stay there.

The consequence of this is that the in-flow to the two blocks is of prime importance. The block that recruits more new members will ultimately win. Recruitment at birth is the largest factor – and unionism appears to have belatedly realised that it is losing on that front. It may appear unsavoury to some that children are 'assumed' to be nationalist or unionist based upon their parents religion – and in a normal country that would not be so – but the hard reality of Northern Ireland is that parental religion is the greatest single determinant of future political adherence, and this does not appear to be changing.

In recognition of its weakness in the maternity wards, unionism turned to Plan B – recruit people who have not yet made a firm political choice. And, of course, though unspoken, what they really meant was 'recruit some Catholics'. By tapping into the supply of young Catholics the unionists, through their new vehicle UCUNF, hoped to divert some of the flow to their ranks, and thus to tip the balance back in their favour. But despite the best efforts of the Tories – the UUP's partners in this venture – the UCUNF strategy has so far failed. There was no evidence at all of an increase in votes to UCUNF – in fact the opposite occurred – in 2010 it received 27,671 fewer votes than the two parties received in 2005!

As for defections, well, there was just that one – Ian Parsley, and he only came from Alliance. UCUNF had had hopes of attracting some previously uncommitted (Catholic) support, but the ham-fisted way that it acted ensured that that could not happen. The already-committed – those active in the SDLP or Sinn Féin – showed absolutely no inclination to join what was clearly a tribal unionist venture.

If the walls between the blocks remain as impermeable in the future as they have been in the past, unionism is doomed. Its in-flow pipe is delivering fewer new members and voters than the nationalist in-flow pipe. Expect, then, a renewed effort – probably via a new vehicle (not UCUNF) – to divert some of those young Catholics in the direction of 'civic unionism'. The Tories tried and failed, so next up should be the British Labour Party.


hoboroad said...

Ivan Cooper was a Young Unionist and a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party before he joined the SDLP.

Anonymous said...

"to join what was clearly a tribal unionist venture"?

a) was?
b) Surely you mean to change tribes?

I would dispute any assertion that religion is the determinant; certainly historically it has not determined allegiance in Ireland as a whole. It furnishes a convenient label, yes, but in reality it is simply largely coincident with, and part of, a set of cultural factors, including historical and contemporary grievances, negative beliefs and prejudices inculcated from an early age and personal experiences that reinforce these.

I spent most of life outside Ireland explaining that no, the dispute in N.I. was not about religion at all. Many Irish people have had this experience. The accidental visitor here might get a very different idea.

It's my belief that had I a choice, as my grandfather did, I'd also have opted for an Irish passport not a British one--because I am a republican who has no time whatsoever for the British constitution (the monarchy, hereditary lords, an established church, Bishops appointed to the upper house etc. etc.). Religion is NOWHERE on my list but I am an Irish nationalist.

Religious affiliation in N.I. is as a proxy that permits score keeping on a set of beliefs on constitutional matters and tribal affiliation may be understandible, even unavoidable, but there is really something utterly ignoble about this business of counting babies. Is "we're going to outbreed you" the best that can be offered? It's not an attractive narrative.

I think it would be far better to start commemorating the shared history in ways that build feelings of inclusiveness. By, for example, inviting unionists to commemmorate the deaths in both World Wars of Irishmen from the whole island (too many are ignorant of the South's contributions despite official neutrality). Confronting the uncomfortable truths about the greenwashing of Irish history by nationalists would surely help in affirming that individuals have always had the ability to reject the dominant narrative--and that very large numbers in the south did so during both world wars.

Respecting the unionist contributions to the defeat of Nazism etc. is something we should all be able to do, setting aside differences on other matters.

Why not have the Irish rugby team play one game in four in orange jerseys?

Let's think a little differently.

Anonymous said...

Today's NYT


Hamas is an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force — not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one.


Unionism is also an idea. It will only be defeated by a better idea. It will no more go away in any forseeable future than the nationalist idea today.

Seymour Major said...

I seem to recall one recent defection to Sinn Fein of somebody who was an Orangeman. I cant remember his name. I assume that was one of those rare block transfers that you were discussing.

In the future, I think there will be more defections towards the centre. In terms of tribal blocks, my reference to the centre is a reference to the agnostic ground currently occupied only by the Alliance Party.

Horseman said...

Seymour Major,

I presume you don't mean Billy Leonard? I cannot remember if he was an Orangeman, but he would have fitted the profile.

As for the 'agnostic ground' in the centre, are you deliberately excluding the Greens, or did you just not think of them (despite the fact that they got almost four times as many votes as your (ex-?)party in 2007, the last time both stood separately!)


shane said...

"Confronting the uncomfortable truths about the greenwashing of Irish history by nationalists would surely help in affirming that individuals have always had the ability to reject the dominant narrative"

and likewise the redwashing of Irish history by revisionists, which is now the dominant narrative.

The Second World War was an intra-imperialist war and led to the Sovet Union (which killed far more people than the Nazis) gobbling up half of Europe. Even by its own terms (Poland ended up being occupied anyway) it was a failure.

Britain's declaration of War on Germany had nothing to do with protecting Jews whatsoever. Churchill was a raving Jew baiter, a strong admirer of fascism, and believed Jews were perfectly to blame for their own predicament. Like in the first world war, Britain just wanted to preserve its strategic, imperialistic, and financial interests. As a result, it lost its Empire and went bankrupt for the second time in 20 years.

Statement by Richard Lynn, Professor Emeritus
University of Ulster, December 5, 2005:

“I’ve checked out the six volumes of Churchill’s Second World War and the statement is quite correct – not a single mention of Nazi ‘gas chambers,’ a ‘genocide’ of the Jews, or of ’six million’ Jewish victims of the war.

Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe is a book of 559 pages; Churchill’s Second World War totals 4,448 pages; and De Gaulle’s three-volume Mémoires de guerre is 2,054 pages.

In this mass of writing, which altogether totals 7,061 pages (not including the introductory parts), published from 1948 to 1959, one will find no mention either of Nazi ‘gas chambers,’ a ‘genocide’ of the Jews, or of ’six million’ Jewish victims of the war.”

Had Britain not declared war, at worst the Jews would simply have been deported to Madagascar. Hitler would have attacked an unprepared Stalin in 1940 and might have destroyed Soviet communism. Either way, one would lose, and the other would be crippled. The Second World War does not deserve to be commemorated - save to remind man of his propensity to folly.

Horseman said...

Ivan Cooper was a Young Unionist and a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party before he joined the SDLP.

Thanks, hoboroad, I hadn't known that.

So, um, that makes ... one defection all the way across the white line, and one return to home of an ex-Tory ... in about 40 years!

I think that pretty much counts as a dearth of defections.

[PS Seymour, I don't count your small act of rebellion against the Connor candidacy as a defection .. yet. But if you start to make a habit of it you'll be a footnote in the history books.]

Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote :
"Why not have the Irish rugby team play one game in four in orange jerseys? "

I doubt even if many unionists would be keen on that.
Even the N. Ireland soccer team play in green jerseys. An agreed flag (for all 32-county Ireland representative teams), emblem, jerseys, protocol etc. would be more practical in my view and I would imagine most unionists would support this.

Some time back, a unionist commentator on this site posted his "shopping-list" for a re-United Ireland and it was very reasonable, in my view and was encouraging.

It will come - and on terms that all people on our island-nation are comfortable with.

- Munsterman

Colm said...

No discussion on turncoat defectors could be complete without a mention of Conor Cruise O'Brien. Born into a strong Republican family, he started his political career as an avowed anti-partitionist. He created quite the stir by joining Bob McCartney and his band of merry UKUP men.

Anonymous said...


You're probably right about the jersey question, but the point was that the willingness to put getting along ahead of symbols can be quite eloquent and persuasive and there are gestures that can be made that cost nothing.

I'm wondering if someone claimed without my having noticed that Churchill was a perfect human being, or made any reference to the jews, or claimed that Irish neutrality was anything other than 100% negotiable in return for reunification?

Horseman said...


Yes, I'd forgotten about the Cruiser! However, don't forget what his eventual advice to the UKUP (and all unionists) was - that they should negotiate the best deal they could, in advance of the inevitable UI. Strange how his name is so rarely mentioned by unionists any more ...

hoboroad said...

Paddy Canuck said...

"Had Britain not declared war, at worst the Jews would simply have been deported to Madagascar."

Okay, where do you get THIS from?

Horseman said...

To be fair, Paddy Canuck, the Madagascar Plan did actually exist, though it was probably very unlikely to be implemented. Look it up in Wikipedia.

However, since Madagascar was a French colony at that time, it would have required Germany to have beaten France before they would get hold of it. And of course, declaring war on France automatically initiated a war with Britain, there was no way for the Madagascar Plan to have been implemented unless Britain had declared war. Chicken and egg stuff.

Not one of humankind's better moments, I'm afraid.

Seymour Major said...


For some reason, my answer to your comment was too long to leave on one comment.

You have criticised the revisionists. I like nothing but historical truth. I imagine you do too. I am perplexed that you have written what you have said.

Some of the criticism of Churchill may have something to do with the fact that as a journalist, writing on the Bolshevik Revolution, he highlighted the involvement of a large number of communist Jews involved in it. There is no evidence, however, that Churchill was anti-Semitic.

In 1921, Churchill was appointed as colonial secretary in Lloyd George's government having been given the task of working out the rules of the Palestine Mandate (agreed in 1917 following the crushing of the Ottoman Empire). His first significant decision was to give the Zionists considerable powers to modernize the country, including the right to utilise the main rivers for electrical power. Churchill was criticised for his decisions. Ironically, he became the victim of anti-Semitism. In the face of that, he vigorously defended the rights of the Jews to build their home in Palestine.

"Churchill...was a strong admirer of fascism"

Churchill began his career on the political left and moved further to the right in later years. He was no fascist. However, he has been smeared in this respect because during the inter-war years, he made some flattering remarks about the way that the economies of Italy and Germany had transformed under Mussolini and Hitler. His remarks were made up to and including 1936, shortly before Hitler's invasion of the Rhineland.

I suspect that the revisionists have airbrushed the fact that Churchill saw the dangers of German re-armament before most other British politicians. He fought bitterly to retain Britain's military strength. In 1933 he urged Parliament for the creation of an air force to defend the civilian population.

"The Second World War was an intra-imperialist war"

Poland was attacked in 1939. Did that make it an imperialist power? Did the USA enter the war to gain colonies? Yes, Britain had empirical interests and its empire was fully involved but this was not a colonial war.

"Britain just wanted to preserve its strategic, imperialistic, and financial interests"

It would be much more accurate to say that Britain was defending its existence.

Seymour Major said...


This is the second part of my answer

"Britain's declaration of War on Germany had nothing to do with protecting Jews whatsoever"

No, that was 1939. Britain and France entered the war on the back of a protective treaty with Poland. The Wannsee conference took place in January 1942. After that meeting, the mass genocide of the Jews took place.

"Had Britain not declared war, at worst the Jews would simply have been deported to Madagascar."

The notion that Britain should have done nothing and hoped that Germany would leave them alone after it had finished "gobbling up" Europe is fatuous.

Has it occurred to you how many ship and plane journeys it would have taken to deport 6 million Jews from Europe to Madagascar, particularly while a war was going on? It was a supreme logistical feat merely organising their inland transport to the camps.

“Hitler would have attacked an unprepared Stalin in 1940 and might have destroyed Soviet communism. Either way, one would lose, and the other would be crippled.”

I completely disagree. With so much territory, manpower and natural resources, the winner would have been able to re-arm very quickly and press its next phase of World domination.

"the second world war does not deserve to be commemorated"

I totally agree. In fact, I don’t know anybody who does commemorate the war. Of course, people do commemorate the victims and those who made sacrifices. That is an important distinction.

Paddy Canuck said...

"To be fair, Paddy Canuck, the Madagascar Plan did actually exist"

Indubitably. But I highly doubt the Germans ever seriously entertained the idea of wresting a productive tropical colony away from another armed First World nation just to hand it over to people they hated enough to, well, KILL them by the millions... and pay for the massive transport of MILLIONS of unwilling people into the bargain. Some people of conscious (though obviously, not quite enough) dreamed it up, but it was only slightly more likely than Germany building the V2 to resettle Jews on the Moon. The war provided the cover for the Holocaust, but war of one kind or another was inevitable. Even if they'd had to start one with Russia, it was coming. I don't think there was ever a hope of avoiding "the elimination of the biological basis for the Jewish Question" once those people were in power.

Paddy Canuck said...

Errm, that should be "some people of CONSCIENCE", of course. Give us a bloody edit button already, Blogger!! :)

hoboroad said...

hoboroad said...

In his last year as prime minister, Winston Churchill, concerned that an influx from the Caribbean would turn Britain into what he called a "magpie society," identified immigration as "the most important subject facing this country" and, according to Harold Macmillan, wanted the Tories to adopt a policy and slogan of "Keep Britain White!"

hoboroad said...

hoboroad said...

Paddy Canuck said...

"Winston Churchill, concerned that an influx from the Caribbean would turn Britain into what he called a "magpie society,""

What exactly did Churchill mean by "a magpie society"? Was it some sort of expression for disharmony or other problem of assimilation that I just haven't heard before, or is it strictly a reference to colour?

hoboroad said...

An old English folk tale states that when Jesus was crucified on the cross, all of the world's birds wept and sang to comfort him in his agony. The only exception was the magpie, and for this, it is forever cursed.
In Scotland, a Magpie near the window of the house foretells death.[10]
In Scottish folklore, in a story possibly related to the above, magpies were long reviled for allegedly carrying a drop of Satan's blood under their tongues.

hoboroad said...

hoboroad said...

In 1994 I published 'Eminent Churchillians', the title a nod to Lytton Strachey's revisionist masterpiece 'Eminent Victorians'. I wanted to draw some uncomfortable truths about the 1940-55 era to public attention, and as a result the book created quite a stir. My first bestseller, it received no lukewarm reviews - people seemed either to love or to hate it.

Each chapter has a very different point to make:

'The House of Windsor and the Politics of Appeasement' centres on the anti-Churchill stance adopted by the Royal Family between 1935 and 1940, which in certain different circumstances could easily have denied him the premiership.

'Lord Mountbatten and the Perils of Adrenalin' makes the case for the impeachment of the last Viceroy of India, on the grounds that his cheating over the India-Pakistan frontier and his headlong rush towards partition led to around one million deaths in Punjab and the North-West Frontier in 1947-48.

'The Tories Versus Churchill During the 'Finest Hour'' examines the depth of hostility to Winston Churchill amongst his Conservative and National Government colleagues, even while he was delivering his great wartime speeches as prime minister.

'Churchill, Raced and the 'Magpie Society' explores the way in which successive Conservative Governments between 1951 and 1960 privately deplored the way in which mass New Commonwealth immigration was changing the nature of British society, but did nothing to control immigration until that change was well underway.

'Walter Monckton and the 'Retreat from Reality'' castigates the appeasement of the trade unions by the Conservatives in the 1950s, which led to many of the industrial relations problems which so nearly wrecked Britain economically in the 1970s.

'Patriotism: The Last Refuge of Sir Arthur Bryant' exposed the Nazi sympathies of one of Britain's best-loved and most admired popular historians.

These were harsh, aggressive and uncompromising essays, written by an Angry Young Historian, in terms so unmeasured that I would probably hesitate to adopt them today. Yet I believe each of my arguments still stands, and indeed some of them - such as that Lord Mountbatten readjusted the India-Pakistan border in India's favour after the Radcliffe Commission had drawn it - constitute the accepted historical version of events.

Horseman said...


I think it would be fair to say that that last post should not actually be in the 'first person' - you were copying Andrew Roberts own description of his book, were you not?

Unless you actually are Andrew Roberts - something I strongly doubt.