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Defenders of the cause

How ethnic parties can moderate their politics without losing their supporters and still take power

Northern Ireland is a place riven by deep ethnic divides which define the political landscape. Few Catholics vote for British Unionist parties. Few Protestants vote for Irish Nationalist parties.

In such environments most  political science theories predict that parties –competing only with parties from their own ethnic group – will lurch further and further into extremism.

Parties vying for the support of, and dominance within, their communities try to 'outbid' one another by using emotional appeals, warning voters that their interests are in danger of being sold out to their ethnic 'rivals'. 

nationalist voting buttonIn this tense atmosphere, moderates reaching out to other ethnic groups risk being accused of being naive or treacherous. Any such move by a party renders it vulnerable to challenges from within its own community by hardline 'saviours' of the cause.

In this way the dominant parties are undermined and they become unable to claim they are the one voice of their communities. Settlements are less likely to be attempted, become harder to reach and, if struck, are less likely to be stable. Conflict resolution is pushed ever further out of reach. Most theories ultimately envisage the collapse of democracy and inter-ethnic war. 

unionist voting buttonAt first glance this race to the extremes seems to be being played out in Northern Ireland. In the recent Northern Ireland elections the UK and Irish governments' worst electoral nightmare came true when the two hard line parties – Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) –  won the majority of the votes in their respective communities.

However, rather than this representing a hardening of attitudes, Dr Paul Mitchell, a political scientist, from the London School of Economics, along with colleagues Professor Geoffrey Evans from the University of Oxford and Professor Brendan O'Leary from the University of Pennsylvania argue that something quite different is going on.

Their research, published in the journal Political Studies, argues that traditionally more extreme parties, such as Sinn Fein and the DUP, can move towards more accommodating positions, making themselves more relevant for participation in government while simultaneously remaining the strongest defender of the ethnic cause.

They demonstrate that this is what has happened in Northern Ireland by showing that while there is increased support for the ostensibly more extreme parties, there is actually a convergence in public attitudes, across the political divides, towards the core features of the 1998 Good Friday peace Agreement.

In line with the observation that Sinn Fein's leaders became more moderate, support for the contentious 'consent principle' among Sinn Fein's supporters increased by 11 per cent between 1998 and 2003. Thus by 2003 two thirds of self-identified Sinn Fein partisans supported 'the guarantee that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom as long as a majority of the people in Northern Ireland wish it to be so.'

For many Unionists one of the most controversial aspects of the Agreement was the provision of 'North-South bodies' designed to coordinate policy between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. For the DUP in particular, strident opposition to 'Dublin interference' in Northern Ireland had long been an important principle and prominent rallying cry. Strikingly, however, between 1998 and 2003 opposition to North-South bodies declined by 13 per cent among UUP supporters and by 25 per cent among DUP partisans.

The researchers point out that a key issue in allowing these parties to moderate their stances, whilst maintaining the support of their communities, is that they can still step forward confidently when the community asks: 'who stands up for us best?'

A question in the 2003 Northern Ireland election study asked 'which party do you think has been the most effective voice for unionists/nationalists in Northern Ireland?'

Three times as many respondents perceived Sinn Fein, rather than the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), to be the most effective party in representing the interests of Nationalists. Sixty one per cent of respondents judged the DUP to be the most effective voice for Unionists – including 40 per cent of supporters of its less extreme rival the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

This research challenges the idea that entrenched and active ethnic political party systems lead, finally, to democratic collapse. The experience in Northern Ireland shows that the incentives of well designed power-sharing institutions may persuade even formerly 'hardline' ethnic parties to become more moderate providing they can protect themselves from the charge of 'sell out' and the associated challenges to their power. Crucial to this is the ability of the parties to convince their respective communities that they remain robust defenders of the cause.


Useful links

Extremist Outbidding is Not Inevitable in Ethnic Party Systems: tribune parties in Northern Ireland|, by Paul Mitchell, Geoffrey Evans and Brendan O'Leary  appears in the June 2009 edition of Political Studies.

For full details of Dr Paul Mitchell's research and publications see his profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Dr Paul Mitchell|