Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Sinn Fein and the DUP can both afford to lose a seat

In my most recent post, on UK redistricting and Northern Ireland, I stated that both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists (DUP) could afford to lose a seat as a result of redistricting. This post explains why this is the case.

If one looks at a map of Northern Ireland after the most recent UK Westminster parliamentary election, one sees that the entire west of the province--except for the northwestern corner-- is colored green for Sinn Fein. The exceptions are the Foyle consituency around Derry, which the SDLP won, and the County Londonderry seat, which the DUP took. Now if one looks at the east of the province one sees the orange color of the DUP except for the light green of the SDLP in South Belfast and in South Down, and the yellow of Alliance in East Belfast. The DUP has eight of the provinces eighteen seats or just under half; Sinn Fein has five; the SDLP has three; and Alliance one with independent Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. We have already said that the South Belfast seat is going away leaving the SDLP with only two seats.

If as a result of the redistricting in the west the DUP loses one seat it will still have more seats than any other party. If Sinn Fein loses a seat it will still have twice as many seats as its nationalist rival, the SDLP. In 2010 Sinn Fein retained the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat by only four votes against an agreed unionist candidate drawing votes from both UUP and DUP voters. The UUP has broken its formal link with the Conservative Party, thus opening the door for a possible return of Hermon to the UUP, putting it once more on the Westminster map. If the two main unionist parties can again agree on a comprise candidate for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat and the SDLP again goes its own way, it is conceivable that the seat could flip to being unionist. 

In any case, the Good Friday Agreement with its consociational structures of division within the Assembly and Executive of all parties into unionist, nationalist, and other categories has effectively made the real competition intracommunal rather than intercommunal. That is, no party gains a real advantage for being the largest party in the province, but only for being the largest party within its sectarian community. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are de facto co-first ministers because one needs the support of the other. Sinn Fein had in fact proposed that the titles be formally changed to co-first ministers but the DUP objected. The DUP did this so that it could milk extra votes out of the danger of Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein becoming first minister from the UUP. The controversy over the name and cap badge change from Royal Ulster Constabulry to Police Service of Northern Ireland at the turn of the century demonstrated how much unionists are hung up on symbols. The unionist voters need to be reassured over the loss of their hegemony in the province with symbols. That is what much of the annual marching/parades controversy is about every year.

In reality, since the Good Friday Agreement was implemented on a stable basis in 2007 following IRA decommissioning of weapons in 2005, the province has been run as a sectarian carve-up with Sinn Fein running the west and center and the DUP running the north and east. The other three main parties are left to fight over the crumbs. In the Executive and the Assembly the two parties cooperate to run the province smoothly, much more smoothly than the UUP and SDLP ever did between 1999 and 2002. This is because the DUP and Sinn Fein don't have to worry about their own sectarian agitation, or that of their sectarian rivals who were amateurs at the sport.

If in the Middle East Israel and Palestine are ever transformed into a single state as a result of the inability to implement a two-state solution, expect much the same type of symbolic conflict between Jewish extremists and Muslim extremists along with much real conflict.

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