New generation of politicians seeks to erase the North’s divide
Non-unionist and non-republican representatives are increasingly prominent
People Before Profit MLA for Belfast West Gerry Carroll. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Deputy leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland Clare Bailey. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly must register as “unionist”, “nationalist” or “other”. The “others” represent a little over 10 per cent of the 108 members. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
In 2010, the Ulster Unionist Party was in serious decline. For the first time in its history the party failed to elect an MP to Westminster.
It elected a new leader, Tom Elliot, who was a traditionalist, a reactionary and an electoral millstone. During the leadership contest – to show how different he was from his liberal rival Basil McCrea – he bragged he would never attend a GAA match or attend a gay pride event.
Paula Bradshaw was present for that performance. Earlier that year she had stood unsuccessfully for the party in the Westminster elections in Belfast South. She recoiled as she watched Elliot setting out his stall.
Bradshaw is the product of a mixed marriage – her mother a Catholic from Andersonstown, her father a Protestant from York Street.
“Elliot was disparaging about the GAA and about the pride parade. I did not feel comfortable with that. It was just not me.”
It propelled her to leave the party. But that put her into a big quandary. If she wanted to continue in politics, where could she go?
In other words, what happens to the politician who feels strongly enough to resign on a principle that has nothing to do with the identity politics of the North?
Or for a politician who feels the bread-and-butter issues that dominate in the Republic (be it the economy, the environment, or societal issues) are more important that the constitutional question?
Bradshaw did resolve her own issue and we will come back to her resolution later. The question to be posed for now is: is the label that reads neither green nor orange becoming more visible in Northern politics?
Talking about labels, many years ago when I was a teenager, a crowd of us went to a U2 gig in Salthill.
A raucous punk band from Cork, Nun Attax, played support. Its lead singer was a human bungee cord called Finbarr Donnelly.
Kids of that age are obsessed with categorising everything. After the gig one of my friends cornered Donnelly and fired a rapid volley of questions at him.
Are you punk? Are you new wave? Are you ska? Are you mod? Are you indie? Are you rock? Without missing a beat, Donnelly turned around to him and roared emphatically: “No, we are f***ing cabaret!”
It’s hard to do cabaret in Northern politics because it seems you can be defined only in two or three ways.
There is an extraordinary statutory requirement that every party elected to the Assembly must register as “unionist”, “nationalist” or “other”.
The number of “others” remains very small compared with the rest, a little over 10 per cent of the 108 Assembly members.
But it is growing and there are signs also that some bigger parties are slowly beginning to define themselves in ways that move away from the traditional labels.
Until recently the Alliance Party, unionist at homeopathic doses, was as close as you could get to an alternative.
But since then, both the Green Party and the Marxist People Before Profit (PBP) have made significant breakthroughs, each electing two MLAs in last May’s election.
As you walk down towards Clare Bailey’s office in south Belfast you pass a large gable mural that is very unusual for Belfast street art.
No balaclava or king astride a horse is to be seen. Instead, it portrays the golfer Rory McIlroy in mid-swing. It might be small visual hint of incremental change.
Bailey is one of two Green Party MLAs elected last May. Her election, she says, was not a blip, rather an early sign of a shifting of tectonic plates.
“We are genuinely a post-conflict party,” she says.
“The reason the Green Party exists is nothing to do with conflict or sectarianism. We don’t even call ourselves a cross-community party.
“We focus on policy and issues. We are trying to carve out an alternative political future, with sustainable economics and a sustainable future.”
She instances climate change, marriage equality and bad planning in Belfast, as well as social problems such as domestic violence, suicide and sexual abuse.
She argues the other parties do not put these issues at their core.
So how does climate change go down when she brings it up in Stormont?
“It is overtaken with the politics of the past and identity politics. But when you go out on the streets, people see climate change and environmental issues as a more immediate threat.”
Old order usurped
In political terms, what happened in west Belfast last year was almost as shocking politically as the emergence of punk.
This is Sinn Féin heartland, home turf for party leader Gerry Adams. Yet a tall and sincere politician – still only in his mid-20s – usurped that order last year by topping the poll.
Gerry Carroll operates out of a nondescript office on the Falls Road but it is full of young volunteers and buzzing with purpose.
His interest in activism began in school when he opposed the Iraq war. He later got involved in campaigns such as the Palestinian cause and Make Poverty History.
So far, so Sinn Féin. But Carroll gravitated towards PBP. “They were organised and I liked their campaigns. They had the right language for me: think global and act local.”
Carroll’s poll-topping performance last year came on the back of years of local activism, street campaigns and door-knocking.
And, he says, a sense that people in west Belfast did not feel they were reaping any peace dividend.
“People’s lives have not got better. There is the recession. Wages have decreased. We are faced with welfare reform and the bedroom tax.”
PBP has done better in nationalist areas but it is organised in both communities. “There is a strong tradition of socialist politics in the North for 100 years and more.
“We make the point consistently that the fundamental debate in society is about class. In the Shankill and Falls it’s the same, it’s about school, poverty and jobs.”
Carroll believes there is a growing appetite for a new form of politics. In fact, while PBP is marked as “other” on the Stormont register, he and Eamonn McCann actually marked down “socialist” on the form.
It is important not to get ahead of ourselves. Many new parties in the Republic promised to break the mould and failed. NI21 provides a salutary lesson.
It emerged from the UUP in 2013 and promoted itself as “cross-community party”, focusing solely on Northern Ireland.
Its leader was Basil McCrea, who had lost out to Elliot in the leadership contest three years earlier.
Among those who joined was Johnny McCarthy, a young man from a Catholic background. He had the distinction of being the only NI21 candidate elected, when he won a seat on Lisburn council.
“What attracted me was it seemed to want to move away from sectarian politics,” says McCarthy, who saw it as lying closest to his progressive views on equality and social choice.
“Maybe it was naivety on my part. Because I did not grow up with the Troubles, I thought I was not part of any of that and had no need to look at it.”
But once he drilled down, identity politics kept cropping up. It was unavoidable. “It’s great the idea of a non-sectarian politics in Northern Ireland, but it’s impossible to take the identity aspect away completely.”
NI21 eventually collapsed under the weight of a personality dispute but McCarthy was coming to the view that, for him, the economy and environment could be expressed only in an all-Ireland way.
That put him at odds with the bulk of his colleagues in NI21 who came from unionist backgrounds.
And here’s the rub. Even for “others” there is always a constitutional aspect, that veers towards a form of unionism or nationalism. PBP is all-island in that it wants to unite all working communities.
Individuals in the Greens include those with hardline nationalists and unionist viewpoints.
What is less obvious are the shifts taking place in the traditional parties. McCarthy is now a member of the SDLP.
His image of the party was conservative and Catholic but the party’s image has changed somewhat at the hands of a new generation.
Nichola Mallon personifies that new generation. An MLA for Belfast North, she believes Northern politics is still in an “identity phase” but that people like her are trying to get it to move on.
“For a younger generation of voters there a shift and a widening of self-identification beyond the traditional view. The SDLP MLA team is very new with a much younger age profile.
“The work we have done in a short space of time includes private members’ Bills on homelessness, on breastfeeding and on very tangible issues that resonate in peoples’ lives rather than playing the same chorus.”
The decision by both the UUP and SDLP to go into opposition rather than join the power-sharing executive is also a sign, she argues, that politics is moving on.
Paula Bradshaw eventually plumped for Alliance Party and is now its health spokeswoman in the Assembly.
Her take on it reflects the increasing complexity of party make-ups.
She says that constitutionally she is a unionist but adds that she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times identity politics has been brought up with her since joining the party.
Mostly, it has revolved around constituency bringing up the flags issue, which has been a sensitive point for some people.
She counters that by saying there is still a “us and them ’uns” attitude in politics. Like other smaller parties, she claims it is being encouraged by Sinn Féin and the DUP, who have forged a “toxic mix” of mutual self-interest to block others.
As against that, she says, it is very easy for people to see each political party as a homogenous group when there are many divergent views and individuals.
The tendency in the Republic is to think of Sinn Féin having changed its spots south of the Border while remaining static in the North. But that does not reflect reality.
Its focus is still very much constitutional, but the thinking, driven by party chairman Declan Kearney, has been very much about charting a path to the post-conflict period.
It is theoretical and abstract, but signals a willingness by republicans to live up to their responsibilities (even if they are painful) and also focus on eradicating sectarianism in Northern society.
That would also involve some deep compromise, including, for example, on flags and emblems.
“We could address some of the key fault lines such as sectarianism and polarisation, housing, schools and so on,” says Kearney.
“It would allow us to take politics to a new level where the tendency to be held back by old battles could be greatly reduced as we developed new forms of trust and friendship and human and political relationships.”
But that is not happening in the present. Ironically, what has brought the Executive crashing down is a scandal that sounds very familiar in the Republic but is unusual in the North, where crises usually revolve around existential rows.
The consequence of it, however, will be very much old politics, them versus us, specifically Sinn Féin versus the DUP.
Coming seven months after the last election, newbies have not had enough time to bed in.
In addition, the number of seats falls from 108 to 90, meaning trouble for recent arrivals. Then there is the dreadful prospect of direct rule if no agreement can be reached.
In other words, all promise they will be chaste one day. Just not in 2017.