Rise of the ‘others’ and not Sinn Féin the real story of Northern politics

Little is said or understood of NI’s middle ground, be that up North, Dublin or Westminster

Binary labels of Northern Irish politics places nationalism and unionism in a minority position.

Recent polling from Liverpool University’s Irish Institute/Irish News suggests the so-called Alliance “surge” shows little sign of waning.

In the space of 10 years, this once-alternative grouping has made remarkable gains, in 2019 the party increased its local government representation by 65 per cent, that same year deputy leader Stephen Farry was elected as South Down MP, by a margin of 3,000 votes.

The momentum behind the party’s vote share has moved in tandem with year-on-year data that indicates social and political identities in Northern Ireland are changing at pace. This year’s Assembly election may very well produce a Sinn Féin first minister, which will be a largely symbolic result; but the real story here is the rise of the others.

The Alliance party is joined in the Assembly by the Green Party and People Before Profit as undesignated, meaning that they don’t designate as unionist or nationalist. Together, this grouping has been in and around 10 per cent, but the polling conducted by the Irish institute puts the Alliance party at 16 per cent and the Green Party at 6 per cent for a combined percentage of 22. Sinn Féin, who continue to look likely to be the largest party returned in May is coming in at just one point ahead. This increase in those opting out of the binary labels of Northern Irish politics places both nationalism and unionism in a minority position. And yet, little is said or understood of Northern Ireland’s middle ground, be that in Northern Ireland, Dublin, or Westminster.


Beyond the headline figures, the results from the Irish Institute/Irish News poll also carry some interesting undercurrents with one-in-five voters remaining undecided. Between the near 30 per cent of non-aligned voters, coupled with the 19 per cent of unionist voters in this grouping, it’s evident that in this election all is to play for.

Seats to watch include Lagan Valley, Strangford, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, each of which has a margin of less than 500 votes. Undecided unionist voters may be motivated enough to break the political creed and vote for what they believe, not for what their community historically expected of them. But as with any election, winning votes takes more than a convincing argument or aspiration for progress, and the ultimate determining factor in just how much change may be delivered at the ballot box will hinge upon these voters not only making important political choices, but actually turning out to cast their votes.

As the election looms, one cannot underestimate the value of transfers in a Single Transferable Vote system. The socially liberal policies championed by nationalist parties are likely to be more appealing to moderate voters than the conservative ideals shared among unionist parties, of which opposition to rights like Irish language, body autonomy and integrated education can be counted.

Evidence demonstrates that priorities of the others are attuned to the betterment of society as a whole; in particular, issues which affect communities in the here and now such as health, housing, and the economy.

The DUP strategy of relying on loyalists to unquestionably vote down tribalist lines in order to maintain the union – all while the party itself does nothing practical and beneficial for those same loyalist communities – is a tactic that may have ultimately run its course.

The higher than average voter turnout in 2017 for the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as that of the 2019 parliamentary election, were particularly damaging for unionism. In 2017, the unionist vote fell by 2 per cent despite the increased number at polling booths, while Alliance saw a 2 per cent swing, with Sinn Féin nearly doubling that at 3.9 per cent. In 2019, Alliance had a swing in the parliamentary election of 8.8 per cent. These two elections resulted in unionism losing its majority in Stormont and Westminster for the first time indicating that a higher voter turnout may be to the benefit of both the Alliance party and nationalist parties.

On the back of collapsing the Executive, and with little sign of a strategy outside of keeping “themmuns” out, the DUP in particular is poised for potentially another damaging electoral outcome.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said the Northern Ireland protocol represents the “single greatest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK in a generation”, but emerging data continues to illustrate that the protocol could be highly beneficial to Northern Ireland.

A new survey on behalf of Chartered Accountants Ulster Society shows that, of the participants polled, 81 per cent of accountants insist that the protocol “presents a major opportunity” for the Northern Ireland economy. With economic and social policies taking focus as top priorities for Northern Ireland’s middle ground, the DUP stands little chance of winning favour.

The legacy of the past, constitutional issues, and the protocol were deemed of little interest to unaligned voters in the Irish Institute/Irish News poll. For those stuck firmly in the past, the mere concept of a group of citizens unburdened and uninterested in tribal arguments is alien but it is this cohort that the very existence of Northern Ireland relies on.

The important takeaway here is that these what-ifs are emblematic of the nuance and diversity of opinion which has grown out of the oppressive, militantly binary generational political agendas for which this region is infamous. And it’s this fledgling openness to change that so threatens the dwindling subsection of the population still unwilling to release their grip on a geriatric status quo.

Northern Ireland’s potential no longer hinges on the whims of privileged political leaders who’ve overstayed their welcome, but upon the aspirations of a growing cohort of independent thinkers within even their own deflating parties.

Northern Ireland’s growing middle ground may be formidable enough to disrupt the decades-long hold on progress and usher in a progressive future for the North unburdened by self-serving political dogma.

  • Emma de Souza is a writer and citizen's rights activist.