Sam McBride: As Stormont has crumbled, tribal politics has flourished

Political deadlock has meant that there has been no Executive since March. Photo: Matt Mackey / Presseye.com
Political deadlock has meant that there has been no Executive since March. Photo: Matt Mackey / Presseye.com

Since the creation of Northern Ireland 96 years ago, politics here has been deeply tribal.

The extent of that tribal element to political life has waxed and waned since 1921, but has never been absent.

A segment of the population has always rebelled against the concept of every election being fought on the issue of the border and that saw expression in the Northern Ireland Labour Party and more recently the Alliance and Green parties.

But the vast bulk of voters have reliably responded to either the hope or – far more often – the fear that their vote could help either the cause of the Union or that of a united Ireland.

That appeal to the most deeply felt urges in the bulk of the electorate did not vanish during the last decade of Stormont devolution, despite the fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein were working together in government.

But it did recede as Stormont grappled with everyday issues – from school funding to corporation tax to abortion legislation.

One of the most striking developments of the last six months is that as Stormont has crumbled so tribal politics has taken its place.

This election campaign has been largely quiet, due to a combination of electoral fatigue and the Manchester atrocity leading to a break in campaigning.

But what debate there has been has been overwhelmingly focussed along Orange and Green lines.

Even Brexit, which has been debated by all the parties, often appears to be a proxy for the old constitutional question, with Sinn Fein’s main concern being the border and the DUP’s being that Northern Ireland could be left as a lesser part of the UK if it gets some sort of special EU status.

The party manifestos have largely been less detailed than in the past. Sinn Fein’s is particularly vague, containing just two firm pledges, while the UUP manifesto is unbelievably thin, consisting of just seven pages of text.

Perhaps it is inevitable that when politicians have no direct responsibilities, they will return to the old certainties.

But voters, who often bemoan the politicians who serve them and lament their tribalism, are ultimately central to the issue.

Some voters cast their ballot based on a candidate’s work record or on their party’s policies in areas such as social issues.

But history shows that overwhelmingly the electorate responds to essentially tribal arguments.

Ultimately, if it didn’t work the politicians who tried it would lose to those who do not.

Now, facing the prospect of Stormont not returning for some time, there is the potential for politics to become progressively more polarised. And if that happens it makes finding agreement increasingly more difficult with every passing month.