Book review: After a century of elections, NI is clearly more polarised than ever

The books covers eight elections from 1905 up until 2003
The books covers eight elections from 1905 up until 2003

ALEX KANE reviews a new book that examines eight key Northern Ireland elections spanning almost 100 years and finds that very little has changed in our political landscape

I like elections. An opinion poll only tells you what someone may or may not do on polling day; but an election is the hard proof of real choices made and the consequences of the outcome.

What Alan F Parkinson’s Election Fever: Groundbreaking Electoral Contests In Northern Ireland suggests is that those choices and consequences here have been mostly and depressingly consistent since May 1921.

Or, as he sums it up in his closing line, ‘...elections represent periodic opportunities to manifest tribal loyalties shaped by history and tradition, rather than the expression of pragmatic voter choices relating to the modern world’.

He covers eight contests in detail: the North Belfast by-election, 1905; the first Stormont election, 1921; the 1949 Stormont election; O’Neill’s ‘Crossroads’ election, 1969; the 1973 Assembly election; the 1981 ‘Hunger Striker’ election; the post-Anglo Irish Agreement by-elections in 1986; and the 2003 Assembly elections. I’m sorry he didn’t include the general election in 1974, which led to the overthrow of the power-sharing assembly, because that was the final time unionists – with a mandate to topple an institution – wielded so much influence over the political agenda. And yet they were unable to deliver their own first-choice alternative to Sunningdale.

I would like to have seen the 1998 Assembly election in here, too, because there were many parallels between that result (and the subsequent consequences) and what happened in the 1973 election.

Publication schedule also meant that Parkinson didn’t get a chance to cover this year’s Assembly election, when unionists, for the first time, lost their overall majority: a pity, because I think it was the most important election since 1921.

That aside, this is a very interesting book, with some very canny observations. For instance, most of us remember Terence O’Neill’s “Ulster stands at the crossroads...” pre-election pitch in December 1968, but his resignation comments – after he was forced to stand down the following April – are mostly forgotten: “A few short weeks ago, you, the people of Ulster, went to the polls. I called the election to afford you the chance to break out of the mould of sectarian politics, once and for all. In many places, old fears, old prejudices and old loyalties were too strong. I have tried to break the chains of ancient hatreds. I have been unable to realise during my period of office all that I have sought to achieve. Whether now it can be achieved in my lifetime, I do not know. But one day these things will be, and must be, achieved.” Those words remain as relevant as ever.

The 1969 election, with its absurd mix of pro and anti-O’Neill candidates, selected by the same UUP constituency associations, marked the beginning of the internal implosion that was to dog a succession of UUP leaders and lead to its eventual replacement by the DUP as the ‘voice and vehicle’ of unionism.

The unionist factionalism and breakaways that followed that election were, in turn, to leave Brian Faulkner with an enormous headache in 1973, when he found himself leading only 24 pro-White Paper unionists out of a total of 50 unionist seats. He was doomed from the moment the final results were announced on June 30, 1973.

In 1998 David Trimble found himself in a similar situation, when the UUP’s 28 (not all of whom were pro-Agreement, either) didn’t represent a majority of unionists in the new assembly. That outcome, accompanied, as it was, by the fact that the SDLP outpolled the UUP, meant that Trimble was hung out to dry; first by the DUP and Sinn Fein, who gave him no leeway; and then by the British and Irish governments, who concluded that a lasting deal required the DUP and Sinn Fein to become the electoral top dogs.

Parkinson’s chapter on the 2003 election, ‘A drift to the margins,’ is an excellent summary of the shift from the original hopes of April 1998, to the political despair of where we are 20 years on.

The 1981 by-election, in which hunger striker Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat, was easily the most important psychological/propaganda fillip for Sinn Fein in a generation and was to have an impact that can still be felt today.

In the 1986 by-elections (their response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement) unionists hoped to repeat the success of February 1974; instead, they lost a seat and were powerless to do anything afterwards. It’s also worth being reminded of the 1949 Stormont election, fought against a background of Eire wanting to form a Republic and leave the Commonwealth. It was bitter. A sign, perhaps, of how bitter a border poll will be when it is, eventually, called.

What these eight elections demonstrate is no change at all in the unionist versus republican nature of our politics. Indeed, we’re clearly more polarised now than ever because the margins have narrowed since 1921. Brexit has changed the dynamics, as has the 2017 Assembly result and two elections in a row in which unionists didn’t represent a majority.

This book is an excellent, albeit incomplete guide to previous electoral challenges for unionism, republicanism and the centre. Four years away from Northern Ireland’s centenary this book makes for fascinating reading for unionists and nationalists alike; because, in terms of electoral outcomes and political direction, there’s everything to play for.

Parkinson opens with a quote from Sam Thompson’s 1964 play, Cemented With Love: “We don’t want people to think. We want them to vote. If a sane, sober Orangeman, Protestant or Catholic, started thinking for himself in this day and age, he’d sooner stay at home than vote for either side.”

Fifty-three years later and Thompson seems to be right: the two power-blocs are growing and sanity is rarely to be seen.

• Election Fever: Groundbreaking Electoral Contests In Northern Ireland, by Alan F Parkinson (Blackstaff Press)