The politics of parity in Northern Ireland

Steven McCaffery of The Detail has an interesting post looking at the demographic shifts underlying the stalemated Haass talks in Northern Ireland:

The census marked an historic shift, unprecedented in Northern Ireland’s history – but it has barely registered in the public mind.

It revealed that the Protestant population, which once held a comfortable majority over Catholics, has fallen below 50% for the first time.

Protestant numbers in Northern Ireland have dropped to 48% and Catholic numbers have risen to 45%. The gap is predicted to narrow.

Anyone who winces at such sectarian headcounts might take comfort in the fact that the political message contained in the figures is that the future will inevitably be a shared one.

Indeed, it seems to me that the shift towards parity has influenced the increasing salience of Alliance, the party which claims to represent a shared future.

It was Alliance's casting vote on Belfast City Council, where the party strengths already reflect parity, which led to change in the city's flag policy. It was Alliance councillors who were targeted by loyalists in the resulting protests, and, oddly enough, it was Alliance who were blamed by Unionists for the failure of the Haass talks.

Putting this shift down to demographics might suggest that it is quite transient. Yesterday, the median voter was an Ulster Unionist, today they are Alliance, tomorrow (or in a few decades time) they will be SDLP.

However, there is evidence that something else has been going on. Much of the Unionist animosity towards Alliance is driven by Naomi Long's shock defeat of Peter Robinson in East Belfast in 2010. This looks less like a demographic shift and more like a political shift by voters in a predominantly unionist area, albeit one which might well be reversed in 2015.

Alliance would probably see this kind of fluidity as presaging a breakdown of both unionist and nationalist blocs. Thus far however, the shift towards parity has largely benefitted nationalists.

If there is not yet a nationalist majority, there is the possibility that the Sinn Féin and the SDLP can construct a 'progressive majority' on particular issues against the conservative politics of the DUP and the UUP. While Alliance cannot afford to be co-opted by nationalism, it cannot either be a reliable ally of unionism. Without an automatic majority, unionists may see more values in the Good Friday Agreement guarantees that many once regarded as an imposition on behalf of nationalism.

The biggest danger for nationalists perhaps is over-confidence, and the creeping assumption that a future border referendum will be won by demographics and not politics. For Sinn Féin, in particular, the  likeliest worry is a falling turnout fed by perceptions of a cosy condominium with the DUP.

On the fundamental constitional issue, Alliance politicians like Naomi Long might well prove to be more persuasive spokespeople for a pro-Union position than many big-U unionists. The politics of parity means that everybody will have to raise their game.







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