Between Belfast and Brussels… How ‘Europeanised’ are political parties in Northern Ireland, and why might it matter?

9 Jul

In a peace process centred on ‘trickle down’ change, a lot of attention is given to the so-called ‘normalisation’ of party politics. If we were to assess how ‘normal’ politics have become in Northern Ireland, we might look at the nature of party programmes (e.g. issues which unite their supporters and distinguish them from other parties) or their internal organisation (e.g. how decisions are made and policies formed within the party). But any quick glance at election manifestoes in Northern Ireland would confirm that nationalist/unionist themes still predominate and comparison with elsewhere is of limited relevance.

In our new book, Mary C. Murphy and I argue that, instead of trying to imagine a ‘norm’ for party politics against which to measure progress, it can be more useful to look for evidence of ‘Europeanisation’, i.e. how European Union membership has changed the ways in which parties in Northern Ireland operate. European integration is significant because it does not necessitate conformity or uniformity in the nature of party systems across Europe, yet it does stimulate a degree of shared experience through participation in supra-national politics, the effects of which may themselves ‘trickle down’ into domestic politics.

Following in the footsteps of Peter Mair, Robert Ladrech, Thomas Poguntke et al. we have looked to see how ‘Europeanised’ party politics have become in Northern Ireland in the same areas mentioned above, i.e. party programmes and party organisation. What we found is that, although the baseline for party competition in Northern Ireland remains unique in Europe (the term ‘dual ethnic party system’ coined by Paul Mitchell is still apt), the context for this competition has been subtly changed by EU membership.

This might come as a surprise, given that the natural inclination of the three largest parties in Northern Ireland is towards a fairly sceptical view of European integration: pro-Europeanism is not generally a vote-winner here. Moreover, party campaigns in every election to the European Parliament in Northern Ireland appear to have little to do with ‘Europe’ at all, with European elections being crudely presented as a unionist/nationalist race to top the poll.

It is true that even parties’ ‘European’ policies are generally grounded in the logic of local politics. But closer examination reveals that all Northern Ireland parties have come to view Brussels as an important arena for realising and defending the interests of residents of Northern Ireland, not to mention those of the party itself. Over the past two decades, all parties have modified their approaches to the EU to enable more productive, albeit resolutely pragmatic, engagement therein.

In terms of party organisation, a comment made by an MEP, Jim Nicholson, at a recent panel discussion at Queen’s on the topic of this book, is relevant here. He noted that the type of ‘confrontational politics’ that we are used to in Northern Ireland simply doesn’t work in Brussels. Northern Ireland’s MEPs have to adapt to a situation in the European Parliament where the modus operandi centres upon negotiation and cooperation.

Such developments in the experience of Northern Ireland’s parties may not mean that people here feel any ‘closer’ to Brussels, nor does it imply the creation of an alternative to ‘dual ethnic’ party competition. Nevertheless, Europeanisation has clearly not only meant the creation of a new political arena  above the local parties but it has also produced change within the parties in terms of how they view and engage with the EU, with national governments and, in some particular cases, with each other. Such evolution constitutes a crucial part in the long process of redefining party politics in Northern Ireland.

Katy Hayward

References

Hayward, K. and Murphy, M. C. (eds) (2010) The Europeanization of Party Politics in Ireland, North and South, London: Routledge.

Ladrech, R. (2010) Europeanization and National Politics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mair, P. (2004) ‘The Europeanization dimension’, Journal of European Public Policy, 11(2), pp. 337-348.

Mitchell, P. (1995) ‘Party competition in an ethnic dual party system’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 18(4), pp. 773-796.

Poguntke, T. et al. (eds) (2007) The Europeanization of National Political Parties: Power and Organizational Adaptation, London: Routledge.

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