On Thursday May 5, the UK held a referendum on replacing the current first-past-the-post franchise with the Alternative Vote (AV) for Westminster elections. The proposal was defeated by slightly better than a 2:1 margin throughout the UK. The referendum was held in conjunction with local council elections and in Northern Ireland an election for the Fourth Assembly. This has slowed the counting so that I don't have the final results in time for this post.
Commentator on unionist politics John Coulter (scroll down to access May 5) predicted that the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the former ruling party in Northern Ireland from 1922 to 1972 in the original Northern Ireland parliament and the negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 under the leadership of David Trimble, would sink to fourth place in the Assembly with only 15 seats, only one seat behind the third-place Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The UUP and SDLP were the ruling parties along with Sinn Fein in the First Assembly from December 1999 to October 2002. In the elections to the Second Assembly in November 2003 the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein replaced the UUP and SDLP as the main unionist and nationalist parties respectively.
This was largely because the IRA had refused for several years to decommission its weapons as called for in the Good Friday Agreement. This made the First Assembly and the peace process an on-and-off affair. David Trimble resigned in July 2001 in an attempt to force Tony Blair to stand up to Sinn Fein and force the IRA to decommission as Blair promised in a side letter to Trimble in April 1998 when the Agreement was signed. Blair refused. Trimble's credibility both within his own party and within the wider unionist community was at stake over the decommissioning issue. Finally, in September 2005 the IRA decommissioned the bulk of its remaining weapons--but in a very secretive fashion that provided little assurance for the unionist community. By then the DUP had already decimated the UUP in the 2005 general election reducing it to a single seat in the Westminster Parliament. The UUP lost that seat, North Down, when it formed a common ticket with the Conservative Party for the 2010 election. If the UUP does come in fourth behind the SDLP it will demonstrate that it has not yet begun to recover from the shift in unionist politics.
What occurred in Northern Ireland is that the unionist electorate shifted rightward from 1998 to 2005 and then leftward as the DUP also shifted to steal the political clothes and policies of the UUP. The nationalist community also shifted rightward as nationalists began defecting from the SDLP to Sinn Fein starting in 2001. The SDLP has stopped the downward slide by hanging on to three Westminster seats in 2010, but has yet to begin to recover the ground occupied by Sinn Fein. The latter has unashamedly appropriated SDLP policies for itself as from 1982 to 1998 it was only concerned with the constitutional issue of Northern Ireland's subordination. Like the SDLP, Sinn Fein favored Irish unity but was prepared to support armed struggle, a euphemism for a combination of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, to achieve this.
Why does a blog devoted to the Middle East pay attention to Northern Ireland? Because Northern Ireland is the closest society to Israel. Northern Ireland shares five of the six salient features of Israeli politics, lacking only a class of military politicians because it lacks its own armed forces. Both Israel and Northern Ireland are siege societies and democracies--siege democracies--caused by being ruled by minorities within the region. The Jews are a minority within the Middle East, a region where Sunni Arab Muslims constitute the political core, where non-Arab Sunnis and non-Sunni Arabs constitute the next ring, and non-Arab Shia Muslims like the Iranians in the third ring, and the Jews are left in a group by themselves as both non-Arabs and non-Muslims. On the island of Ireland things are simpler with the only two significant groups being Irish Catholics and British Protestants. The unionists are the besieged majority within Northern Ireland, and a minority on the island and within the UK. Just as Arabs denied Israel the right to exist, the Irish state in the South claimed the territory of Northern Ireland from 1937 to 1999 as part of its constitution. The main difference is that the Irish state never supported the armed struggle of Irish republicans in the North.
The collapse of the UUP parallels the collapse of the Labor Party in Israel. But there is good news--Coulter predicts that the liberal Alliance Party will pick up an extra Assembly seat in the election for a total of eight. Too bad that this does not seem to be occurring in Israel with Meretz. The UUP's fortunes seems to indicate that it is very hard for a former ruling party to recover once the electorate has lost confidence in it. The Likud under first Ariel Sharon and then under Benjamin Netanyahu has begun to pay lip service to the policies of the Labor Party. Netanyahu has declared he supports a two-state solution, while doing everything in his power to avoid negotiations on one. So even as the electorate in Israel shifted to the right, Netanyahu may be shifting the Likud to the left to meet it in the center as the DUP has done in Northern Ireland. But because Israel has straight proportional representation (PR) franchise rather than the hybrid PR-STV (single transferable vote) system used in Northern Ireland and Ireland, trends will be less clear in Israel.