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.