Ever since the Northern Ireland state was founded in 1922, it has suffered from a single, and apparently necessary, democratic deficit. Because its entire raison d’etre was the defence of the rights of Protestant / Unionists, its boundaries were drawn to ensure a continuing majority of that community: the six counties of Northern Ireland were bundled into a state with roughly two Protestants to one Catholic. As long as the demographics could be maintained, its stability was ensured.
The downside, however, was that the normal processes of democracy were compromised. Any effective democratic state requires that, if a government fails to perform effectively, the voters can throw it out and replace it with the opposition. The mere threat is enough to guarantee that governments attempt to work effectively. And even though many states have a ‘natural party of government’ which tends to spend long periods in power, voters do eventually reject them in favour of another party from time to time.
In the fifty years in which Northern Ireland was a self-governing state, there was only one party in government, and no realistic alternative. Where could it come from? The opposition was composed of the Nationalist party, representing the minority community, a status which the very existence of the state depended on. They seemed to be permanently excluded from power. In theory, if a quarter of the Unionists sided with the opposition, a government have been formed. But the political realities made this unlikely prospect impossible. A Nationalist government was in principle opposed to the very existence of the state; and the threat of Nationalist advances was regularly used to chivvy the Unionist population into voting yet again for the safe option. A change of government was never likely to happen: there was no viable alternative.
The system set up under the Good Friday Agreement, however, created a different kind of democratic deficit. Effectively, it forced the two sides to combine to form a government. This ensured represenation of both communities in power, but once again there was a downside: there was now no place for an alternative. A Unionist monolith with Nationalist opposition was replaced by a Unionist / Nationalist monolith with none.
Democracy, however, has strange ways of working. What has happened, in effect, is the emergence of not one but two opposition parties: one Nationalist, one Catholic, like political conjoined twins. The first ministry in the new Assembly was composed of Ulster Unionists and SDLP; since 2003 they have been replaced by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. Neither party on either side has a great deal in common ideologically: the DUP and Sinn Fein share a more working-class background and a greater appeal to the younger voters, but they are distinctly different parties. The same is true of the UUP and SDLP. Yet the strange dynamic of electoral preference has asserted itself. There genuinely seems to be an alternative, and one that has emerged because of the voters, not because of the politicians.
There is still no opposition in Northern Ireland, seats in cabinet being divided proportionally between the major parties. But it is clearly a DUP / SF government in the same way that the previous one was clearly an UUP/ SDLP one. Indeed, in the recent elections there were suggestions that interesting voting patterns were beginning to emerge, with DUP and SF voters transferring to their government partners rather than tribal ones. Time will tell, and the growth of the Alliance Party has indicated another alternative that might yet emerge. But the most important thing is that, whatever the politicians might expect, in the end the only dynamic that matters is what the voters choose. And that’s the only way democracy can work.