The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Northern Ireland is politically divided. Maybe that’s changing.

A nonaligned party is winning voters from both sides

A sign near the Northern Ireland Assembly building in Belfast on June 13, the day the U.K. published a bill to unilaterally scrap some of the rules governing post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)
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Five weeks after a historic election, is Northern Ireland any closer to a functioning government? The May 5 election saw nationalist party Sinn Fein beat the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), forcing it into second place.

But the result appears to have left the region stuck. The DUP refuses to enter government, in protest over the Brexit protocol. The U.K. government has inflamed the dispute by threatening to unilaterally override parts of that agreement. The future of the power-sharing settlement between the nationalists (who want a united Ireland) and the unionists (who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K.) hangs in the balance.

A Sinn Fein win in Northern Ireland could bring big changes

Yet polarization is not the only story of this election. For the first time, a party that is neither nationalist nor unionist has become the third largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the Alliance Party continues to grow in support, it may challenge the underlying logic of a political system based on sharing power between two clashing communities.

A nonaligned party did well in the election

Alliance was formed in 1970 as an explicitly nonsectarian party representing partnership across the nationalist-unionist divide. Until recent years, the party enjoyed only modest success. That has now changed. Alliance increased its vote share by a third to 13.5 percent — more than doubling its Assembly seats from eight to 17. That now ranks the party behind only Sinn Fein (27 seats) and the DUP (25 seats).

Long dismissed as a sideshow, “civic” parties that cross the divide now make up 16.5 percent of the vote and 20 percent of the Assembly’s 90 seats, compared with 7 percent in 1998 — albeit that total is heavily dominated by Alliance. This year’s election result has solidified a third force in Northern Ireland politics.

This result was unlikely, given how Northern Ireland works

This rise is particularly remarkable in the context of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement put in place a system explicitly designed to accommodate nationalists and unionists — marginalizing those that reach across that divide.

The Assembly requires members to designate as “nationalist,” “unionist” or “other,” but gives only “other” members a secondary role. The two ethno-national blocs have an effective veto on certain legislative votes, which “others” do not. The top (equal) offices of first minister and deputy first minister are theoretically open to “others,” but with steeper hurdles. If Alliance had come second instead of the DUP, it still would have been ineligible for the deputy position that the DUP can now claim (if it wants).

Alliance succeeded by working the system

Alliance pulled off this feat by skillfully navigating the system. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements disadvantage civic parties, but they are still more flexible than systems in places such as Lebanon and Bosnia. “Other” parties at least have a role in politics.

While Alliance wants to change the power-sharing system, it has also participated in the system and — ironically — benefited from some of its features. The party has taken part in the power-sharing government, and was granted a ministerial position under the proportional system that awards such posts to all parties based on electoral performance.

Alliance has also seized openings because of its nonaligned status. Unionist and nationalist parties rarely trust one another on justice and policing, for instance. This means that the Justice Ministry has been awarded to Alliance outside the normal procedures, giving the party another platform from which to grow.

People are talking up the prospects of a united Ireland. It’s easier said than done.

Northern Ireland’s voters are changing

After campaigning for over 50 years, Alliance’s positions arguably resonate better with a changing electorate.

The proportion of people who identify as “neither unionist nor nationalist” has risen since the Good Friday Agreement and is now the largest of the three designations, at 42 percent in 2020. And 38 percent of those “neither/nors” claimed to support Alliance.

To many voters, other issues beyond ethnic/national identity have become more important. A “socio-moral” cleavage on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion has emerged and complicated the unionist-vs.-nationalist dynamic.

Socioeconomic issues such as health care and cost-of-living concerns dominated the 2019 and 2022 elections. Unionist and nationalist parties certainly have positions on these issues, but the more they dominate debate, the easier it is for civic parties to have their voices heard.

The political dysfunction has heightened the urgency of quality-of-life issues. Northern Ireland had no properly functioning executive from 2017 to 2020, and again after February. Brexit and related political crises have afforded Alliance a platform for its solutions-focused policies.

This may have consequences in the longer term

None of this will change the impasse in Northern Ireland politics. In the medium term, Alliance’s success at the polls will help nonaligned parties call for changes in the power-sharing system, to grant nonaligned parties equal representation. Civic parties want to get rid of the requirement that parties designate themselves as nationalist, unionist or other. Scholars suggest changing how premiers are elected, including making the first minister and deputy first minister equal in name.

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In the longer term, “center ground” voters who are instinctively neither nationalist nor unionist now have their own bloc, complicating the referendum on Irish unity that Sinn Fein would like to see. Alliance takes an effectively neutral stance — but as the main party in this bloc, it could play a swing role in that debate. That might prove tricky for the party, given the diversity of positions among its supporters, but it could lead to a less ethnically explosive debate.

Whatever happens, a civic party in Northern Ireland is demanding change from within. This has implications for other political systems that have similar power-sharing arrangements, including in Lebanon, where nonsectarian parties made a breakthrough in recent elections. Civic parties can emerge, grow and drive change in power-sharing systems, especially under flexible rules.

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Cera Murtagh is assistant professor of comparative and Irish politics at Villanova University. Her research focuses on civic mobilization in post-conflict societies, and she is writing a book titled “Civic Parties in Divided Societies: Northern Ireland and Beyond.”

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