Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville famously coined the phrase “It’s the economy – stupid” for the 1992 US Presidential election. In the UK the issue of the economy has been seen as central to a party’s election chances for many years: making Labour trusted on the economy was one of Tony Blair’s greatest electoral achievements. In the recent Westminster election the centrality of the economy was there for all to see. There may no longer be major left / right economic issues over say nationalisation but the variations over economic policy are highly important. Other social issues are of course also relevant and sometimes on those the left right position is less obvious. However, It is pretty clear that these social issues and especially the economy decide how most people vote.
Northern Ireland is of course different: not really a place apart as there are many places in the world where politics functions along less strict socio-economic lines; Belgium is an example of a modern western democracy which does not function in a simple left right fashion.
One of the great hopes of the Conservative and Unionist alliance was to introduce a socio economic voting dynamic to Northern Ireland. Some hoped on this website as well as elsewhere that a significant number of CU MPs would be elected and that in the fullness of time the Labour Party would also stand. Such a hope is, however, essentially pie in the sky. The suggestion was and remains that what is needed is a move away from identity based to issues based politics. However, this is once again completely misguided and misses the point that the major issue in Northern Ireland is the one related to identity and indeed that many of the issues come back to the central identity based one.
One major problem is that republicanism has stressed that it is going to use every issue in order to promote a united Ireland and hence, that they wish to make every issue related to what some suggest is identity.
Michelle Gildernew when she used significant amounts of the agriculture budget to fund a ploughing competition in the RoI was using issues in a very identity based fashion. A similar position informed her decision to give money to hill framers in the latest farm grants exercise. Conor Murphy’s championing of the A5 upgrade has openly had the agenda of improving a road with cross border significance; ignoring in the process roads such as the one from Ballymena to Coleraine which have a great deal more traffic. The huge upgrade of Newry railway station whilst the much busier Portadown station was been left unimproved is a further case in point. Catriona Ruane’s championing of Irish language schools even when there is limited demand for them is a further example of ideology and identity driving the issues rather than the issues being paramount.
Hence, we can see that republicans consistently utilise the issues in order to push what has been described as an identity agenda. Republicans seek to utilise their political power and capital in such a way as to increase harmonisation between NI and the RoI in an open attempt to make the border gradually less relevant and make NI progressively less akin to GB and more like to the RoI. There is nothing wrong with republicans utilising the democratic process to this end: they have received a mandate for this. However, in view of this, for unionists not to look at this problem and expend resources on trying to tackle it would be folly. The central issue remains the constitutional position of the state and all the other issues are viewed using and enacted upon through that prism.
If unionists continually divided their positions between those of the conventional Labour, Liberal and Conservative positions within GB, it would actually be folly as they would be failing to address what is actually a more critical issue: whether or not the issues should be addressed within the confines of a British or Irish state.
In many ways this is a position of greater importance than the economic or social issues of the day. During the Second World War the central issue for the UK was the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the UK and the defeat of its external enemies. Whilst we are clearly not at war the simple fact remains that the republican movement’s prime aim is to remove NI from the UK and bring it into the RoI. As such for unionists to obsess about the left right nature of a given policy would be to distract their attention and divide their resources from what Sinn Fein would be trying to achieve. That may not always be a problem but there are times when it would cause significant problems.
A sort of analogy can be drawn with Scotland of course and proponents of socio economic divisions within unionism might point to the fact that the pro union parties argue about issues but come together to thwart the SNP on other issues. This somewhat misses the difference which is that the SNP has an aim to demonstrate that Scotland can function as an independent state: as such they are genuinely committed to making it work. Sinn Fein on the other hand are specifically committed to demonstrating that the state cannot work and have shamelessly pursued an agenda of helping their own pet causes and damaging issues of importance to the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Hence, attempted analogies with the system in Scotland completely miss many salient points.
The only way by which the idea of moving to issue based politics might be reasonably expected to trump identity based politics would be if nationalists and republicans could be persuaded by the superior social and economic performance of the UK to cease voting for identity based parties. However, for that to happen the unionist parties would have to make the first move and voluntarily break themselves apart and reform along issue based lines. This would then impair their ability to fight SF’s unification agenda. Whilst proponents of so called issue based politics claim that eventually the nationalist community would in droves start voting for the issue based and effectively unionist parties there would, even in their most optimistic analyses, be a lag period during which the unionist community would see major momentum towards pan Ireland harmonisation and away from the similarities between GB and NI.
Furthermore it is far from certain that these Catholic unionists are anything much more than the product of the fevered imagination of assorted Conservative fansatists. Whilst some may exist and many other Catholics may be somewhat ambivalent about a united Ireland, it is highly unclear how this voting dynamic can be harnessed and how big it is. Sometimes it seems almost an update of O’Neill’s line that one can make Catholics behave like Protestants. That was grossly condescending to the nationalist community and to suggest that socio economic issues will cause nationalists to suddenly start giving wholehearted support to the union is almost certainly grossly naive. During the Celtic Tiger period assorted republican fansastists suggested that the RoI’s wealth would somehow make many in the unionist community decide against their old loyalties and instead vote for their own economic advantage. At the time these suggestions were quite correctly rubbished and indeed scoffed at by unionists. Maybe the odd unionist did think like that but their number was little greater than the number of Protestants who voted for Michelle Gildernew or other products of republican fantasy. Now that the Celtic Tiger has gone the same way as its sabre toothed predecessor to suggest that suddenly vast numbers of nationalists are going to become enthusiastic voters for pro union parties is likely to be little less foolish and the number of Catholic unionist voters is likely to be very few. Significant numbers of Catholics might not vote for a united Ireland if given the option in a referendum but they are unlikely to turn out in their droves for unionist parties.
Support for or at least contented acquiesce with the union is not the same dynamic as voting for a pro union political party. Unionists must not make the error of equating the two. The Catholic population has many reasons to remain deeply committed to the ideal of a united Ireland and to voting for pro UI parties even if they are less than wholly committed to the achievement of a united Ireland. To suggest that they should simply vote with their wallets is actually not far from the “They will sure take the half crown” argument of bigoted yore. Apart from in a border poll it is unlikely that unionists are going to be able to harness this voting block and the Catholic unionist is likely to remain another unicorn of unionist fantasy. In the case of Northern Ireland and indeed many other states: Its not the economy – stupid.