The tribalism of our politics led to NI parties being excluded from debates

John McCallister
John McCallister

If there was ever evidence of the need for politics in Northern Ireland to normalise - to move away from tribalism - UK broadcasters have provided it.

Despite having greater parliamentary representation than the SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP, and the Greens, broadcasters will not be asking the DUP to participate in the televised debates ahead of the General Election.

Similarly with the SDLP, despite having greater parliamentary representation than UKIP and the Greens, and the same number of MPs as Plaid Cymru. And yet, alongside the big three Westminster parties, UKIP, the Greens, SNP and Plaid will be involved.

Let’s be clear what this is not. It’s not London broadcasters finding Northern Irish politics a bit odd and provincial for their tastes. It’s not because of a belief that the devolved nations of the Union are unimportant. If this was the case then neither the SNP nor Plaid would be involved in the debates.

And it is definitely not because either of these parties is irrelevant - in fact, anything but. After the General Election, with the very likely outcome of a hung parliament, there is a very strong chance that the largest party in Westminster will be asking the DUP or, most likely if its Labour, the SDLP, to give some form of support to a minority administration.

So what is it about Northern Ireland politics that leads UK broadcasters not to ask the DUP and SDLP to be involved in the televised debates? It’s the tribalism of our politics. It’s the perception that our political parties are defined by sectarian identity. Put bluntly, this is incomprehensible to the rest of the United Kingdom.

What compounds this is the elephant in the room: Sinn Fein. Not just in the United Kingdom, but across Ireland, the idea that a party, upon winning Westminster seats, would opt not to represent constituents in Parliament, is regarded as utterly alien behaviour. It corrupts our politics, adding to the toxicity. It is the dictionary definition of tribal politics.

Neither the DUP nor SDLP can change Sinn Fein’s behaviour. But this doesn’t mean that both parties don’t have to ask themselves hard questions. Admittedly the SDLP may not be too worried about this. After all, as a nationalist party, should it be worried about UK perceptions? The answer is yes. If the SDLP is serious about a progressive future for these islands, it has to be concerned that, unlike either SNP or Plaid, it is viewed not as a progressive social-democratic party, but as an expression of tribal politics.

For the DUP, as by far the largest unionist party, the question is even more serious. Rather than being seen as a significant presence in Westminster, cementing Northern Ireland’s place in the modern Union, and providing a right-of-centre voice in parliament, the DUP is perceived by fellow British citizens as the representative of an Orange tribe, alien to 21st century British citizens.

There are, then, hard questions that the DUP and the SDLP need to be asking themselves. It is in the interests of normal politics in Northern Ireland for both the DUP and SDLP to be fully involved in Westminster politics, debating the real issues of normal politics, seeking to shape policy at a time when the opportunities for the smaller Westminster parties to exert influence are significant. If it can be done in Westminster, it would hold out hope that Stormont could also leave behind the tribal past. It’s up to both parties to prove the broadcasters wrong, to show by their Westminster campaigns that they are not still mired in tribalism. Are they up to the challenge?