“Where are you from?”
“Wow. What do think of the politics over there?”
“Well, I’m from North Down. So it’s a little bit different…”
I have had variations of this conversation hundreds of times. It’s not due to some overwhelming sense of civic pride or a sense that there is something intrinsically different that happens to you when you live somewhere past Sydenham — it’s because North Down doesn’t easily fit in to what you might expect of a “typical Unionist constituency.”
After all, over the past thirty years, North Down has been the political base for as diverse political forces as the Ulster Popular Unionist Party, the Northern Irish Conservative Party, the UK Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, and the Green Party, representing various fringes of Northern Irish politics.
Staggeringly, our Member of Parliament has been without a colleague of the same party after eight of the past nine general elections, dating all the way back to 1979, a tradition we in North Down are happy to maintain, with the indomitable Lady Sylvia Hermon providing Northern Ireland’s only non-DUP representation in the chamber of the House of Commons.
North Down is undoubtedly different: its Unionism is distinct from that found in North Belfast or North Antrim. This would not, anywhere else in the world, be a surprise. In Northern Ireland, we conflate these areas, despite the fact that, as a wealthier constituency containing professionals commuting to Belfast and a significant proportion of retirees, it is a world away from an inner-city constituency with areas of high social deprivation, or a rural constituency made up of a series of smaller agricultural communities. In any other society we would treat all three differently.
To further the metaphor: imagine Northern Ireland’s landscape transposed into any other country’s political system. East Belfast and West Belfast, both working-class areas of a post-industrial city, would be prime territory for a left-wing party, as the equivalent areas of London or Dublin are; West Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and North Antrim would likely all be heartlands of the same conservative traditionalist party.
This is, of course, an entirely academic exercise (however much we might want an issues-based political discourse to exist, that’s not the Northern Ireland we live in) but it is worth remembering. These trends still exist, however much they are trapped under the surface.
Most notably, there is a significant East—West imbalance, with greater political influence leading to a concentration of governmental resources and energy in Greater Belfast. This can have devastating consequences, with the ongoing crisis in the Health Service in rural areas just one example, but can also have a subtler impact on the way our politicians behave, specifically in the way they fight elections.
One approach to electioneering is for candidates to try to assemble wide coalitions, gaining the support of as broad a cross-section of society as possible. This is particularly effective in proportional systems such as the Single Transferable Vote used at local and regional elections in Northern Ireland: by gaining second-, third-, and fourth-preferences from more voters, you can get more candidates elected.
In a deeply partisan, divided society, however, there is another approach — if you can increase turnout in ‘your’ areas more than another party can increase it in ‘theirs’, you can win an election. This is how Democrats and Republicans generally fight elections in the United States, each intensifying their efforts to appeal to their traditional supporters.
I would argue that the former is closer to the way elections work in urban areas in Northern Ireland; the latter is closer to the way elections work in rural areas.
In rural seats like West Tyrone, Mid-Ulster, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where community bonds are stronger and identity more distinct, appealing to a wide coalition isn’t the point. As a politician, therefore, you are more focused on bolstering the support of your most passionate supporters than reaching out beyond them to attract swing voters and later preferences from other parties.
This matters because in the last few years we have moved from being led by politicians with urban backgrounds, in the form of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, to politicians from rural backgrounds in Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill.
It would be reductive to claim that this is the sole reason for the current impasse in talks to form an Executive, or that political trends present elsewhere can be used without caveats for Northern Ireland’s unique political history or current identity politics.
It does, however, mean we should pause before we generalise about Unionism and Nationalism in general. Divisions between urban and rural, rich and poor, moderate and hardline will always be apparent, and need to be understood to produce a fuller picture of Northern Irish politics.
North Down is different, and maybe it always will be. But every other constituency is different too, even if we don’t realise it.
Richard Hunter is a 22 year-old from Bangor, who graduated in Modern History at the University of St Andrews. He can be found writing about football at A Year With Jurgen.