Since I launched the campaign for a new centre-right party two weeks ago, I have highlighted, in a number of posts, the problem of toxicity. The Toxicity of the Conservative Brand in Scotland is most certainly related to past policy failure by the Conservatives. In Northern Ireland, the reasons for toxicity are more complex. The toxicity of Unionism is connected with identity. The Nationalist identity itself is not just about the desire for a united Ireland. Historical events that have made Unionistm toxic have also shaped the Nationalist identity. This is not an easy political science. That drives me to look for new ways to explain the problem and the solutions to deal with it. This post is concerned with the toxicity of Nationalism from a Unionist point of view and how it compares with the Toxicity of Unionism from a Nationalist point of view.
Why is it that left-wing Unionists do not vote for the SDLP or Sinn Fein? One might say that it is much easier to answer the question in relation to Sinn Fein than the SDLP. The SDLP is what its name suggests – a Labour Party. The SDLP is a moderate party. It has no connection with the violence of the past. Why then does it fail to attract the votes of working class Protestants?
There is a distinction between the SDLP and Sinn Fein in the minds of unionists but it only seems to matter in elections when tactical voting comes into play. For example, in the 1992 general election, Dr. Joe Hendron of the SDLP took the West Belfast Seat from Gerry Adams. He could not have achieved that without attracting votes from Protestants in that constituency.
By all accounts, if there was normal politics, the DUP, which seems to have a larger working class base than the UUP, should be losing votes to the SDLP. Why does this not happen?
Last week, I wrote about the (now extinct) Northern Ireland Labour Party. I only took the history of that party up to 1949. The interesting aspect is that before that date, it took no position on the Union or a United Ireland and still managed to take a sizeable proportion of the Protestant working class. Nevertheless, most of the Protestant working classes voted for the Ulster Unionists. I indicated that the Orange Order played a significant part in boosting Protestant working class support for the Ulster Unionists.
Today, there are almost no voters from the Protestant Community that support the SDLP. The SDLP is still a moderate party, even though it was more moderate in the past than it is now.
There is no doubt that Nationalism is a Toxic brand to Unionists. However, it is much more than that. Unionism came into being because of the rise of Nationalism in the 19th Century. Nationalism is actually part of its identity. To be even more accurate, Nationalism is a Unionist anti-identity. The Orange Order played a crucial part in the construction of that anti-identity.
Paradoxically, anti-Unionism defines Nationalism in a similar way. Unionism has become an anti-identity for the Nationalists. There is a difference in the way that the two anti-identities were constructed. Whereas religeon played a crucial part in the formation of the anti-Nationalist identity it was layers of stark historical events which put together the Nationalist anti-Unionist identity. The post 1949 history of the Old NILP gives an interesting clue as to when the Nationlist anti-Unionist identity reached its final form. I quote here from Wikipedia
“Later in the 1950s, the party began to gain ground amongst unionist voters, and after the break up of the Irish Labour Party’s new attempts to organise in Northern Ireland amongst some nationalists, it saw its greatest period of success between 1958 and 1965. Four NILP MPs were elected to Stormont in 1958 for Belfast constituencies”
“As late as 1970 the party could poll over 100,000 votes on the basis of its cross-community appeal”
“However with the onset of the Troubles, new parties emerged that appealed to the party’s support base, including the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist Party. Once again the polarisation of politics around partition deprived the party of a critical mass.”
That strongly suggests that the Unionist anti-identity within Nationalism was developing right up until the troubles and reached its final form during that period.
The power and potency of toxicity and anti-identity can be illustrated by the way that Nationalists reacted to the appointment of Rodney Connor as a unionist unity candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone at the General Election. The SDLP consistently distinguishes itself from Sinn Fein as a party which does not have an association with the violence of the past. That point certainly resonates with some Nationalists when chosing between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. However, that did not stop 3,500 SDLP supporters from switching their support to Sinn Fein to stop Connor from winning the seat.
Toxicity and anti-identity are the twin pillars which sustain sectarian politics in Northern Ireland today. They are an obstacle to greater freedom and a better life for the Northern Ireland people. They will not last forever. Indeed, there are early signs that Unionism is weakening. The question is, do we have to wait for these obstacles to erode over a long period of time or can they be brought down?
I have spent the last fortnight arguing that only a party, which is neutral on Northern Ireland’s sovereign future, can operate as a successful cross-community political party of the centre-right. The Northern Ireland regional Conservative Party holds its AGM tomorrow. Those of us involved in this campaign appreciate that it will take much longer than two weeks to persuade the critical mass of NI Conservatives towards our point of view. So what are the expectations for tomorrow’s proceedings?
We want those standing to become officers of the new committee to be committed to making the advancement of non-sectarian politics to Northern Ireland a priority objective. We also want them to recognise that pursuing further arrangements with UUP is not in the interests of the party.