The centre ground in Northern Ireland has been a tough road for the last fifteen years. Rightly or wrongly, the truth is that our own version of it has been a somewhat half-hearted attempt to be brave enough to say that elections, as opposed to a border poll if and when there is one, need not necessarily be about securing the most nationalist or unionist votes.
Recently, Irish economist David McWilliams when describing how Churchill had won the war but lost the subsequent election said: “Churchill went into the election as a the General fighting the last war and promising that things would go back to the way they were. But the people had moved on.”
Like history has shown us in the aftermath of an event of truly global significance, things will not go back to the way they were. This is the opportunity for the smaller political parties in Northern Ireland. A return to normal will be in the interests of our two dominant parties because that’s the environment in which they’ve had a grip on the political marketplace. But if history repeats itself and the smaller parties can ride the crest of that wave, they’re back at the races.
There are many commentators who say Northern Ireland isn’t capable of having a dominant centre ground whilst our constitutional position remains contested. But this is simply untrue. My evidence? Well, for example, more people are registered to vote, but don’t vote, than vote for Sinn Fein and the DUP combined.
Even accepting there will never be 100% turnout at an election, isn’t it at least just as plausible to say that none of the parties who claim to occupy our centre ground, apart from arguably Alliance of late, have been able to give these people a reason to vote as to say the political space doesn’t exist at all? Perhaps they’ve simply not had the right message, policies or campaigning prowess to reach them. To take another example, if a party like the SDLP could secure 5% of non-voters, that’s enough for six additional Assembly seats. If it could move from securing 4% of transfers of Unionist voters to, say, 10%, it would be a different ball game altogether.
The point is that the centre ground in Northern Ireland, as with other parts of Europe and the rest of the world, either overcomplicates elections, is clouded by self-righteousness and self-entitlement or simply isn’t very good at the fundamentals of organising a campaign.
An election is just like a market – there are buyers and sellers. The sellers who do well know what their product is and know who their customers are. But the political marketplace in Northern Ireland for anyone else other than the big two parties has been difficult. The others have been unsure of their product, have been relatively poor with their marketing and potential buyers are equally unsure of what they want.
Post-COVID and in the “new normal”, however, this market might change. A global pandemic that has caused a scale of tragedy, disruption and recession, like no other in our lifetimes, might mean the buyers will begin to look for a different product other than strength and clarity on Irish and British constitution. For example, they may want a push towards a more wellbeing-based economy or a party willing to be brave and use this opportunity to completely reform post-primary selection after the faff of this year.
To do this, the SDLP, Alliance, the UUP and the Greens will need to be brave. They’ll need to: finally accept that, to varying degrees, they’ve been offering the wrong product to the wrong customers; take difficult decisions with regards to candidates; develop better campaigning and organisational expertise; and offer something new and different that will be relevant and attractive in the new normal.
The space for new ideas and new vision will be there, the question is whether anyone is willing to leave their comfort zone to fill it.
Gareth Brown is a political commentator, former Stormont and Cabinet Office adviser, and a Client Director at LK Communications.