The Rise of Tolerance in Northern Ireland

Posted in Europe | 21-Dec-12 | Author: Ciarán McCarthy

The Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2011 was described in some quarters as being the most mundane in the history of Northern Ireland due to an absence of conflict between the political parties. Although politicians would usually never like their work to be described in such dull terms, in the case of Northern Ireland is this in fact a veiled compliment which infers that the politics of Northern Ireland are becoming normalised? If so, then this must mean that the landscape of Northern Ireland is changing with levels of tolerance between the political parties and communities on the rise. This increase highlights Northern Ireland as a worthy focus of the World Security Network with the WSN’s current focal point being the Codes of Tolerance (

Although all was not rosy during the election – the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was quick to stigmatize the possibility of a Sinn Fein First Minister through its published work ’40 DUP Failures, 40 Ulster Unionist Achievements’ with the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister being listed as the seventh failure – the overall spirit of the election was positive. The general media of Northern Ireland recognised the improbability of a Sinn Fein First Minister and lambasted the guilty parties for insulting the intelligence of the general public while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) manifesto entitled ‘Moving Forward’ expressed the more progressive DUP tone as it outlined a ‘roadmap to create a single education system’ thus further supporting its leader Peter Robinson’s earlier description of segregated education being a benign form of apartheid. The election also saw a diminished amount of support for the extremist Traditional Ulster Voice (TUV) party with the party only gaining a 2.5% vote share. This was further complemented by the resounding success of Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd in the Upper Bann constituency, an area previously known for its activity in dissident activity. All of this combines to show that the greatest winner of the 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly Election was not a single candidate or party but in fact moderacy as never before was such a respectful campaign run by the political parties of Northern Ireland.

Optimism or Pessimism?

Some commentators are concerned that the traditional hard-line parties of the DUP and Sinn Fein received the highest amount of seats in the Assembly (38 and 29 respectively) and believe that this indicates that voters see the traditional hard-line parties as the best protectors of their sectarian interests. However, I believe that this can in fact be interpreted in a different manner which is that the dominance of the DUP and Sinn Fein does not reflect increased polarisation between voters (in particular younger voters as it is the younger age groups which make up the largest amount of support for the DUP and Sinn Fein) but rather is a reflection of the current social setting in Northern Ireland. To elaborate, research has been carried out by Tilley and Evans (2011) which demonstrates that people are more likely to vote for parties which were / are successful during their formative years. This is illustrated by the fact the two generations which came of age before the formation of the DUP are least likely to identify with the DUP and this was reflected by the age groups 53-58 and 59+ giving the least amount of support to the DUP during the election. Similar results were found for Sinn Fein with their strongest support coming from the age group 18-25 while they also received strong levels of support from the age groups 26-30 and 31-41 while Sinn Fein was not entered into the voting process when the older age groups were experiencing their formative years. Therefore it can be argued that the growth in support of the DUP and Sinn Fein does not reflect the emergence of entrenched generational polarisation vis-a-vis unionism, republicanism, intra-community violence etc. In fact in the most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey forty-five percent of respondents stated they neither thought of themselves as Unionist or Nationalist. Additionally, respondents felt the greatest priority for politicians was improving cross-community relations with thirty-one percent listing it as their first priority while another eighty-three percent of respondents either ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement that the politicians of Northern Ireland should be working with others in different communities so that there is compromise and reconciliation.

Due to the overwhelming support that the DUP and Sinn Fein are currently receiving from the electorate it may be argued that they will not be constrained to shift to any sort of middle-ground to maintain their vote share. But with the electorate demonstrating more moderate beliefs, then the traditional hard-line parties will have to ensure that their policies are in line with the beliefs of the electorate, otherwise the DUP and Sinn Fein would run the risk of losing their dominant vote-share. A more moderate and tolerant electorate can only be positive for the long-term hopes of democracy in Northern Ireland. This sentiment is prevalent in the thoughts of both DUP and Sinn Fein MLA’s. DUP MLA Mervyn Storey has observed that although the two main parties may be fundamentally opposed, they have been able to set that aside and are now concentrating on what the social concerns are for people in Northern Ireland i.e. housing, education, unemployment etc. Sinn Fein MLA Sue Ramsey commented that the best thing about the last election was that “it was not about the ‘bigger’ politics on the doorstep but social justice issues” and that the stronger the parties are then the easier it is for them to address these social issues. 

Sue Ramsey
Sue Ramsey Sinn Fein MLA

Furthermore, as the parties continue to work together on the issues outlined above we should see a maturing of their relationship. Andrew Bell, who is head of Community Relations, Equality and Diversity in Education policy as well as education projects in Neighbourhood Renewal Projects for the Northern Ireland Department of Education stated that in his opinion the Executive is already maturing with civil servants able to “see differences in how Departments and Ministers are coming together” with a movement away from tribal politics as the parties now address the social issues of Northern Ireland.

It could also be argued that one fact has been somewhat ignored during the fear mongering which was demonstrated over the furore of a possible Sinn Fein First Minister and the criticism of a DUP – Sinn Fein carve up. The fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein have been more receptive to change than some commentators would wish to admit. In the past Ian Paisley, the former leader of the DUP and perhaps the most prominent member of the party, took part in the Mayhew talks with the Irish Government and other Northern Ireland political parties on the North / South aspect despite these talks leading to the resignation of three DUP councillors. In 2000 Paisley also took the Agricultural Committee of Northern Ireland, including its Sinn Fein members to Portavogie (a traditionally predominant Protestant town). These initial steps by Paisley have been continued by the DUP party as a whole as it currently continues to soften its religious ideals by encouraging local councils to decide upon Sabbatarian policies rather than making it a party issue. Meanwhile on the Sinn Fein side, it has overseen the decommissioning of the weapons of the IRA, endorsed the police and rule of law and attacked actions by dissident groups in 2009, 2011 and most recently this year. Combine these individual actions with the multiple public appearances of then First Minister Ian Paisley with Deputy First Minister and former prominent IRA member, Martin McGuinness and it is clear that both parties have been, and continue to be open to cooperating with each other and moving forward. This can only be beneficial for Northern Ireland and highlights the success of the Good Friday Agreement. Mark Durkan, leader of the SDLP from 2001 – 2010 and current MP for Foyle remarked the idea of the Good Friday Agreement  was to have a joint office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and that this is being achieved  because “the parties have had to move beyond mutual engagement and move into mutual adjustment”.


Mark Durkan
Mark Durkan, SDLP MP for Foyle

Although it is explicitly stated in the opening two paragraphs of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act that the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) have a responsibility to promote equality and good relations between the people of Northern Ireland, this responsibility cannot be left exclusively up to the policy-makers. Even though the legislators are attempting to carry out their responsibilities through the Northern Ireland Executive’s Programme for Government (2011 – 2015) with Priority three being focused on protecting the people of Northern Ireland while creating safer communities and Priority four centring on building strong and shared communities, the legislators need the help of civil society in order to counter any remaining elements of sectarianism and racism. The role that civil society could play cannot be underestimated as civil society groups have the advantage over political parties in that they are not locked into the spatial and identity politics that accompany the political parties. It has already been shown through the Life and Times surveys of Northern Ireland that social perceptions are changing and softening. This is further supported by initiatives such as the Platform for Change (PFC) which was established in 2009 as a direct result of political attitude surveys showing a frustration among the public with the deadlock which the political parties were in at the time. The PFC draws its non-partisan members from trade unions, academia, thinks tanks as well as the voluntary and community sectors with the aim of bringing about a realignment which will help Northern Ireland. Movements such as these are supported by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) which is the largest umbrella group for community and voluntary groups in the region, representing over 5,000 groups.

The Elephant in the room: the need for tolerance...

With all these groups trying to encourage tolerance in Northern Ireland there is fantastic potential for the solidification of peace within the region. Government and civil society groups can complement each other in this process if they harmonise and support each other’s efforts. If this can be done then Catholics and Protestants can simultaneously preserve the integrity of their traditions while strengthening their cross communal ties. Although tolerance is not the sole answer to a harmonised community, it does facilitate the process of establishing and maintaining such a community.


However we have seen in recent weeks that all the strides that have been made can be quickly forgotten if violence rears its head once more.  When the motion was carried to only fly the Union Jack above Stormont seventeen days a year we did not witness such an escalation of violence that we have seen since the same decision was taken vis-a-vis the Union Jack above Belfast City Hall. Perhaps this is because Loyalists feel closer to Belfast City Hall than Stormont and see it as an affront on their grassroots. But if this is so, then once again the need for increased tolerance becomes apparent so that all sectors of the community can feel connected to the new and evolving community.


Therefore if tolerance can continue to be embraced in Northern Ireland then a pathway opens up which if pursued, could help the region move beyond a Consociational, political settlement to an open and embracing democracy. This thought was echoed in the words of MR. Storey, Mr. Durkan, Ms. Ramsey and Mr. Bell. It will not happen immediately but if a more open democracy can be achieved then it will be worth the wait, otherwise we may see a continuation of the past couple of weeks where flags have once again been burnt and protests have taken place in Fermanagh, Down, Tyrone, Antrim and Derry. Surely this is motivation enough for politicians and civil society groups to encourage communities to be more tolerant.