Could Ireland get a normal party system?

Sorry I didn’t notice at the time the vote last Tuesday in the Northern Ireland Assembly on a motion to support legalisation of same-sex marriage. It was defeated by 53 votes to 42, meaning Northern Ireland will soon be the only part of the United Kingdom not to allow same-sex marriage.

But the most interesting thing about the vote, picked up on by the Economist, was the way it shows Northern Ireland starting to develop something like a normal party system in place of the old sectarian division.

The motion, which of course was opposed by the Catholic church, was proposed (and unanimously supported) by Sinn Féin, which represents the mostly Catholic republican community. The opposition to it was led by the Democratic Unionist Party, whose supporters are overwhelmingly Protestant – leading to the delightful spectacle of “the Catholic church praising a party whose founder’s trademark was denouncing the pope as the Antichrist.”

The advent of peace has forced Northern Ireland’s politicians to talk about something other than just whether they should be part of the UK or not. Sinn Féin is doing its best to present itself as a secular centre-left party, while the DUP is looking more like a regulation conservative party.

It will take time, but they may be on the way to creating a party system more like the greater part of the democratic world, where ideology or something like it is more important than religion or ethnicity.

Social issues are also big in Ireland itself at the moment, with debates on abortion as well as same-sex marriage: the Economist reports that Sinn Féin is “using party discipline to impose a liberal line on its representatives (whose personal views range from secular to devout) over abortion.” So it’s possible that something similar will eventually happen in the republic with its even more anachronistic party system (which I’ve tried to explain a couple of times).

I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable when anyone points to Ireland as an example of the evils of religious fundamentalism. While of course that’s part of the story, the tribal politics of the province cannot be explained purely by religion. If all of Northern Ireland’s population was miraculously converted to atheism overnight, its political division wouldn’t disappear; conflict might be attenuated to some extent, but the communities with their different identities would still be there.

But if peace is maintained, and the parties have to find more modern ways to define themselves, then both parts of Ireland might look less like religious battlegrounds.


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