Opinion

Alex Kane: Where is the new political middle ground?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

In 1998 there was an expectation that new electoral vehicles and voices could emerge and the DUP and Sinn Féin could find themselves squeezed. Instead the two parties have consolidated their positions at the expense of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP
In 1998 there was an expectation that new electoral vehicles and voices could emerge and the DUP and Sinn Féin could find themselves squeezed. Instead the two parties have consolidated their positions at the expense of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP In 1998 there was an expectation that new electoral vehicles and voices could emerge and the DUP and Sinn Féin could find themselves squeezed. Instead the two parties have consolidated their positions at the expense of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP

I don’t belong to the school of thought that says political opinion polls should either be ignored or taken with a spade full of salt. They tell you something, even if you’re not always certain what that something is.

For example, the latest LucidTalk poll struck me as interesting, not because of what it says about the present state of the parties (which didn’t really surprise me at all), but because of what it said about the state of the parties when compared to the first assembly election in June 1998.

Back then 90 per cent of the voters opted for parties with a clear, easily-understood position on the constitutional question. That broke down into 51 per cent unionist and 40 per cent nationalist. The other 10 per cent was made up of 6.5 per cent Alliance and a 3.5 per cent ragbag of smaller groups.

By the May 2022 assembly election those figures had switched to 79 per cent unionist/nationalist and 21 per cent Alliance (up to 13.5 per cent) and smaller groupings (up to around 7 per cent). LucidTalk’s weekend poll confirms the pattern, indicating 78 per cent nationalist/unionist and 22 per cent Alliance/others.

Read more:

Alex Kane: Why Sinn Féin would prefer to form a coalition government rather than take outright power in the Dáil

David McCann: Jeffrey Donaldson running out of time to get DUP back to Stormont

Brian Feeney: With their majority gone, what is the point of unionism?

In 1998 there was an expectation that if politics and how we conduct political business was to change then we would see the evidence emerge through the rise of new electoral vehicles and voices and the squeezing of what were then routinely described as the more hardline voices/vehicles, the DUP and SF.

I was in the King’s Hall when the referendum figures were announced and sections of the audience roared ‘goodbye, goodbye’ at the DUP when the 71 per cent Yes tally was announced.

Former Chief Electoral Officer Pat Bradley announces the 1998 referendum result
Former Chief Electoral Officer Pat Bradley announces the 1998 referendum result Former Chief Electoral Officer Pat Bradley announces the 1998 referendum result

I remember a member of the UUP telling me, as an SDLP negotiator nodded in agreement, that the DUP would be punished for being on the wrong side of history, and adding that SF would be forced to back down and bolt to the centre ground if it wanted to survive and have any hope of growth in the south.

Yet the electoral reality of assembly results since 2003 is that it is the UUP and SDLP which have been punished by the electorate – 20 per cent between them last May (compared to 43 per cent in 1998) and the possibility, if the polls are correct, of dipping down to 16 per cent at the next election.

SF and the DUP have risen from 35.7 per cent in 1998 to 50.35 per cent last May and, again assuming the polls are on the money, likely to rise to 57 per cent at the next election.

Neither of them has actually drifted to the middle since 1998: indeed, the evidence suggests they have actually hardened their positions on the back of complementary campaigns in which they cast themselves as the only party which can keep the other at bay.

Yes, they took a joint hit at the 2019 general election, which encouraged them back into the assembly after a three-year hiatus, but they remain, fairly comfortably so, the lead parties of their respective communities.

The other thing which was predicted in 1998, along with the rise of new vehicles and voices, was the emergence of an entirely new, post-GFA middle ground. But that has singularly and surprisingly failed to materialise.

Alliance has done well but it is a party which has existed since 1970 and continues to preach the same message. In some ways it is exactly where it was in the 1973 Assembly, a party between the main parties of unionism and nationalism (the UUP and SDLP at that point).

Yet that wasn’t and isn’t the real middle ground, it was and is just a space between old enemies. The real middle ground – a place where policy isn’t dictated by agnosticism on the constitutional question – remains uncharted and, in electoral terms, untapped.

I’m not knocking the party’s rise since 1998 (up 7 points to 13.5 per cent last May and maybe heading towards 15 per cent), but it’s still a modest rise after a quarter of a century, sourced heavily from voters who once supported the UUP and SDLP, and of interest primarily because of what its voters might do in a border poll.

The LucidTalk poll was published just over 25 years after the first meeting of the Assembly, on July 1 1998. Whatever it may say about the fortunes of the five main parties at the next election (which will probably be a general election in or around the autumn of 2024), it does confirm that we still have those five main parties, albeit with the pack now shuffled from UUP/SDLP/DUP/SF/Alliance to SF/DUP/Alliance/UUP/SDLP.

Apart from that the problems remain pretty much as they were, the primary one being that stable, cooperative, genuine power-sharing is proving pretty elusive.

Was there ever a realistic chance of changing how we ‘do’ politics in Northern Ireland, or reaching the point at which new, game-changing vehicles and voices would have emerged and persuaded the electoral generation since 1998 to see things from their own post-GFA perspective rather than sorting through the hand-me-down tropes, sores and geriatric clichés of my generation?

Was there ever the likelihood that we would be talking about something different rather than forever imbibing the pre-GFA continuous loop whinge and counter-whinge?

Who knows. More important, who cares? Maybe that’s a question which could be included in a future opinion poll. Assuming, of course, there is still an assembly to ask questions about.