Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Northern Ireland heads to the polls

As noted previously, Northern Ireland (or NI) is heading to the polls.

While I will detail the history and background tomorrow, I want to focus on the present situation today.

There are 5 major parties in Northern Ireland.

The DUP is a right-wing party. It is unionist, this means it wishes for Northern Ireland to remain in the "union" with the union referring to the United Kingdom. The DUP has traditionally been seen as being more hard-line on issues relating to unionism. The party draws some of it's support from the old loyalist community; the more extreme end of the spectrum. They took 29.2% of the vote and 38 seats in the most recent election.

SF, or Sinn Fein, is a left-wing party. It is nationalist, whis means it wants to unite with the remainder of the nation of Ireland. SF traditionally has also been the hard-line party, but on the opposite end of the spectrum from the DUP. SF in particular has wide support among the old republican community; the more extreme end of the spectrum. In the 2016 election, they took 28 seats, on 24.0% of the vote.

These two parties currently form the government. Northern Ireland is governed on the basis of power sharing; this means the two largest parties from each 'community' (unionist and nationalist) are allowed to choose the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and that they (along with all other qualifying parties) are automatically invited to sit in coalition.

With the other 3 parties who qualify refusing to sit in said coalition, these two have been governing on their own since the last election, a year ago. Consider that the First Minister, Arlene Foster, was nearly killed in a bombing as a schoolgirl, and that she lived in the area that is has been claimed that the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, commanded as a member of the PIRA. The divides between the two communities run deep, and I will detail this more tomorrow.

In short, the split in Northern Ireland is less about left VS right and more about unionist vs nationalist. A more extreme unionist is considered a "loyalist" while a more extreme nationalist is considered a "republican". I do caution, these are generalizations and it spackles over some nuance in order to simplify things.

The next largest party is the UUP. They are right-wing and unionist, and historically had been the largest party in NI. They refused to join the coalition after the last election, accusing SF and the DUP of consistently working together to present demands to the other parties in the coalition, rather than truly sharing power between all parties. From time to time, the party has taken the Conservative whip in Westminster. They took 16 seats, on 12.6% of the vote.

The 4th largest is the SDLP. They are left-wing and nationalist. Like the UUP, they were not happy with the way the coalition was operating, and so decided to sit as an opposition party. Perhaps Interestingly, the party takes the Labour whip on "non-NI issues" while in westminster. They took 12 seats on 12.0% of the vote.

Lastly is the APNI, or Alliance. They are neither unionist nor nationalist, preferring to sit as "other". The party is moderate, leaning liberal in some ways, and while most of their members and voters are protestant, they are opposed to dividing the polity among the two groups of "nationalist" and "unionist" and would prefer to see a Northern Ireland that has a more traditional left-right divide. The party managed to win enough seats to qualify for a spot in the coalition, but as with the above two parties, refused to do so out of protest of the way the DUP and SF had been running things. They retained 8 seats, on 7% of the vote.

There are also smaller parties contesting the election.

The Traditional Unionist Voice is a party run by Jim Allister, a rebel from the DUP. The party wants an end to the mandatory coalition and an end to power sharing. The TUV can be considered as the most extreme "unionist" party that currently has members. They have 1 seat, with 3.4% of the vote.

The Greens are similar to Green Parties elsewhere in the world, but like SF, share an organization with the party in Ireland, and as such, is an Irish party. As an Irish party, the party operates as a regional branch that is only active in Northern Ireland. They managed 2 seats on 2.7% of the vote.

People Before Profit (PBP) is a socialist and anti-capitalist party that is part of the hard left. They too are an Irish party. Some elements within the party are Trotskyist, and there are some elements of euro-communism to be found in it's political platform. They took 2 seats on 2.0% of the vote.

Independent member Claire Sugden also won a seat, rounding out the parties and people represented in Stormont. She joined the coalition being the first Independent to do so, at the invitation of the DUP and SF. She sits as Justice minister, a portfolio considered too controversial to be handed to either SF or the DUP.

Other parties exist outside the legislature.

UKIP is a branch of the UK wide part of the same name. They managed 1.5% of the vote.

The PUP or Progressive Unionist Party, took 0.9% of the vote. This party is made up of left-wing loyalists, and was considered the political wing of the UDF, the armed terrorist organization fighting against the PIRA during the troubles.

Other parties include "NI Conservatives" and "NI Labour", both local branches of the UK-wide party of the same name; however, combined, the two parties only managed 0.6% of the vote.

The Liberal Democrats have no local branch that runs candidates in NI elections, preferring to work with the Alliance, a party with which it shares many policies and ideals.

Elections in Northern Ireland are done using the single transferable vote, or STV. Each voter has one ballot and ranks the candidates available. Once a candidate reaches a certain level of support, they are declared elected, and their surplus votes are distributed to other candidates. If no one meets the quota, the least popular candidate is dropped, and their votes are redistributed.

For this reason, parties like the UUP, SDLP, and Alliance, which are seen as more "moderate" than the DUP or SF, and far more moderate than the TUV or PBP, sometimes increase their standing in later rounds. In recent elections, however, all 3 parties have lacked primary (IE #1) votes, and as such, have often not been able to make it to those crucial final rounds.

Each of NI's 18 constituencies (used for Westminster, or UK-wide elections) elects 5 MLAs (previously 6) to the assembly, also known as Stormont. This helps to ensure that outside of the most dedicated unionist or nationalist strongholds, each constituency, will elect at least one member from each community, and in many cases, at least one MLA from each of the major parties.

Due to the process of counting ballots through STV, results are often not known right away. Unlike Canada or the UK, which counts ballots the night they are cast, ballots in Northern Ireland are traditionally not counted until the next morning. It remains to be seen if this trend will continue.

Usually, due to the expected nature of vote transfers; DUP votes to the UUP, and UUP votes to the DUP, and a similar relationship on the nationalist side; it can become clear what the shape of the assembly will be early in the counting.

One thing that differentiates Northern Ireland from other jurisdictions is the lack of regular political polling. We have no idea where the parties currently stand, and no idea who may win. People may decide they want the current parties to work together, and re-elect the DUP and SF as the two largest parties. People may decide that enough is enough, and elect the UUP and SDLP as the two largest parties to replace them. People may also vote differently based on the different parties. A split in the unionist vote, might allow SF to finish first, a goal they've been working towards for some time, while a split in nationalist voters may allow the DUP and UUP to emerge as the two largest parties.

Even if this should happen, though, the rules state that each community is allowed to nominate a leading member (First Minister and deputy First Minister) and as such that won't change; unless, the parties all agree to it.

The negotiations following this election will be one of the most interesting in a very long time. It's possible they will fail and NI's assembly will be resolved and the area returned to direct rule from Westminster. It's also possible the negotiations will provide for a new effective 'constitution' meaning how the legislature operates will be radically different, and lastly, it's possible the entire election process will see nothing change at all.

At this point, we just don't know.

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