One of the many definitions of politics is that it is a collaborate effort between different social groups with the purpose of resolving disputes. As a result of this definition, a variety of government systems have been designed by political scientists, and many of these focus on the idea of consensus. Northern Ireland is a prime example of a consensus system, as opposed to the majoritarian system of Westminster. Consensus systems are designed to stop policy-making from occurring when there is no consensus. This mechanism is essentially to prevent one social group dominating another, but apparently some parts of Northern Irish civil society are unaware of this concept.
In a speech announcing the party’s manifesto, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that “domination doesn’t work, partnership does”. This comment is a reference to an interview Nesbitt gave to the BBC. On the Sunday Politics, Nesbitt was asked who he would give his second preference vote to. His response was that “I will be transferring from my Ulster Unionist votes to the SDLP”. The justification for this is fairly obvious. Nesbitt’s strategy for the election is to undermine the DUP within the unionist community by making everything about the RHI scandal. The standard orange-green divide in Northern Irish politics, therefore, cannot be reinforced.
If the circumstances around the new election make the DUP the main political target for all the parties. The RHI scandal was of the DUP’s own making and Arlene Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme at the time. If you were a unionist that previously voted for the DUP, you would be looking to cast your ballot for another party.
Given that the UUP is the second largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, you would think that it is only rational for the UUP to reinforce the orange-green divide. If unionists switched their vote en masse to the UUP, Nesbitt would be the next First Minister. Although this line of argument has a certain logic to it, maintaining the current cleavages in Northern Irish politics would not be to the UUP’s advantage. As well as the RHI scandal, the election has shown that the people of Northern Ireland are getting sick of the Stormont gridlock. By encouraging unionists to back the SDLP with their second preferences, Nesbitt is trying to move the Assembly back to a foundation of collaboration.
However this announcement from Nesbitt was not welcomed in all sections of the unionist community. The TUV have come out against Nesbitt, but considering the TUV represent sections of Northern Irish society who are nostalgic for the social policies of the 1950s, they are largely irrelevant in the political discourse of the province.
The more important response came from the DUP. In an article for the Belfast Telegraph, Arlene Foster said the following:
“When Mike Nesbitt says that he will transfer his vote to the SDLP ahead of any other unionist candidate, that can mean only one thing: that he would like to see an SDLP candidate elected ahead of other pro-union candidates. The logical outworking of his position is that the UUP leader is personally supportive of voting in a way that helps to elect nationalists, who will take their election as an endorsement of support for their united Ireland position and who are already on record as wanting to see Northern Ireland jointly governed in the interim”.