Newton Emerson: Tribal solidarity trumps all in North Belfast

Emerging three-party system must be set against uncompromising acts of aggression

The Ulster Unionist Party’s new dawn lasted barely a week.

New leader designate Steve Aiken had pledged to run candidates in all 18 Northern Ireland constituencies in next month's Westminster election.

Unionist voters appalled by the DUP's mishandling of Brexit would have had a choice at the ballot box and a chance to save unionism from itself. In North Belfast, they could have unseated DUP deputy leader and chief Brexiteer Nigel Dodds for the price of letting in an abstentionist Sinn Féin MP.

That would have been a steep price but only a few hundred voters could have made the difference.


By last Thursday night, Aiken was wobbling under ferocious pressure from the DUP and other unionists. Last Friday, police were called to investigate threats against UUP staff. One threat mentioned a particularly violent faction of the UDA.

On Sunday, Aiken announced his party would not contest North Belfast. Possible loyalist intimidation of moderate unionist candidates recalls the political crises of the 1970s.

In his statement on Sunday, Aiken wrote: “It is better to elect Nigel Dodds in North Belfast and hold him to account than to elect an abstentionist MP.”

How can the UUP hold Dodds to account when it will not run against him?

Aiken added: “We are a party that believes first and foremost in the union, and secondly in the importance of representative democracy.”

Country over democracy is a dubious enough position if you feel your country is at risk. When the DUP is the risk it makes no sense whatsoever.

‘The Betrayal Act’

But tribal solidarity trumps all. In North Belfast last Friday, a huge crowd gathered in a Shankill Road community centre for a rally against “the Betrayal Act”, as prime minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal was termed.

Asked to condemn the Shankill bomb, he would only condemn 'all violence'. Were these tired evasions the best he could muster after two years in politics?

Dodds joined a panel of unionist and loyalist representatives to condemn a deal the DUP is directly responsible for causing. It was absurd, yet appeals to keep Sinn Féin out were enough to keep the audience onside.

The Shankill Road’s hostility to republicans is nurtured from both sides.

When Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane, son of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane, first ran in North Belfast in 2017, one of his party's canvassers was Shankill bomber Sean Kelly, convicted for the 1993 IRA atrocity that murdered nine people, including two children.

Kelly’s appearance was considered a grotesque misjudgement in 2017. Despite that, he is back canvassing for Finucane again.

In a video circulated online last week, Finucane – now Belfast’s mayor – repeatedly refused to condemn the IRA. Asked to condemn the Shankill bomb, he would only condemn “all violence”. Were these tired evasions the best he could muster after two years in politics?

Dragged downmarket

The great hope Sinn Féin has placed in Finucane invites a parallel with leader Mary Lou McDonald. Both are middle-class figures drafted in to move the party upmarket, only to find themselves dragged downmarket.

Finucane should also be compared to DUP leader Arlene Foster – another Troubles victim, with a moral authority to reach out that has been tragically squandered.

The SDLP ran a no-profile so-called “paper” candidate in North Belfast in 2017, giving Sinn Féin a free run without making it official. On Sunday night, the SDLP formally withdrew from the constituency, its first such act anywhere since in four decades. The party’s claim of doing so to oppose Johnson’s Brexit is nonsense. Dodds is opposed to Johnson’s deal and in Westminster arithmetic every abstentionist MP is another half-a-seat towards a Conservative majority.

These two ruthless blocs will never permit the centre ground to hold any meaningful balance of power

Opposing abstentionism had been the SDLP’s campaign platform, in this election and more generally. Now its slogan is “one man, half a vote (for the Tories)”.

With both the minor parties of unionism and nationalism effectively surrendering their reasons to exist, Northern Ireland has taken another decisive step towards replacing the five-party system of the past 50 years with a three-party system of DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance. The Alliance candidate in North Belfast, Nuala McAllister, should help build the centrist vote.

‘Uncompromising aggression’

But the prospect of a new tripartite model of politics must be set against the uncompromising aggression witnessed in North Belfast, with the DUP benefiting from thuggery and Sinn Féin still taunting the IRA’s victims.

These two ruthless blocs will never permit the centre ground to hold any meaningful balance of power. Given the chance they will crush it with agitation and non-cooperation, as they did after the Belfast Agreement, when they were the minor parties of unionism and nationalism.

In the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, the British and Irish governments re-jigged Stormont to encourage tribal solidarity around Sinn Féin and the DUP, hoping that if consensus could not be built outward from the centre it might be built inward from the extremes. North Belfast, although not a Stormont contest, is a significant verdict on that experiment.

When London and Dublin next sit down to rebuild politics in Northern Ireland, they must demonstrate some ruthlessness of their own.