Brian Feeney had a piece in the Irish News the other day where he analysed the results of the recent Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. He focused on the success of People Before Profit in winning two seats. Headlined ‘People Before Profit claims of substantial unionist support are a fantasy‘, Feeney in his article sought to counter the claims from People Before Profit, which had campaigned on the basis that it was ‘neither Orange nor Green’, that it had attracted ‘a substantial chunk’ of unionist support. In reality, according to Feeney, based on an analysis of the party’s transfers, ‘it is clear beyond a shadow of doubt that the PBP MLAs’ votes were green’.
Feeney’s article is something of a minefield in terms of its logic. It is difficult to find the right terms to use when describing politics in Northern Ireland, and the terms you pick usually say something about your own political viewpoint. One could argue that People Before Profit received no unionist support whatsoever: the party doesn’t support Ulster unionism, therefore any vote cast for it can’t be a vote cast by someone who supports unionism. To argue this would be to define a unionist in terms of someone who votes for the maintenance of the Union. There would be good grounds for such an argument: the formal political status of Northern Ireland depends, in the final instance, of the existence of a majority of unionist voters. A person who prefers to vote for a non-unionist party therefore cannot be classified as a unionist voter.
The logic Feeney uses is different, however. For him, being a unionist, and being a nationalist, is a broader matter than who you vote for in any particular election. And so, the PBP MLA votes ‘were green’ because People Before Profit, as he rightly points out, appeals to the tradition of what he describes as ‘red nationalism’: ‘a 32 county party that stands in the tradition of James Connolly who predicted that partition would produce a carnival of reaction’. Since this particular tradition is strongest in areas where nationalist votes have been strongest, and since People Before Profit transfers went mostly to nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Féin, these voters fall under the category of ‘Green’, whatever the declarations People Before Profit might have made about being neither Orange nor Green.
Moreover, by Feeney’s lights, the real intent of the vote was a protest against Sinn Féin, rather than a turn to anything new. The idea of the protest vote is nothing new in Irish politics. In the south, votes for both Sinn Féin and People Before Profit and other options are frequently referred to as ‘protest votes’.
The idea of the protest vote hinges on the notion that there is a real and established political entity that commands enduring support in perpetuity, even though loyalties toward it may waver over time. But this is an illusion, albeit a powerful one. Some loyalties do last a long time, and then they end.
Part of the trouble is that Northern Ireland’s political institutions are based on the idea of a perpetual division between Orange and Green. And that’s how a lot of people see Northern Ireland politics too, and that is the division its media represents, and any way of looking at the world differently is seen as trivial or unserious or a brief diversion.
This has the effect of obscuring certain things that might otherwise appear important. Foremost among these is conflicting class interests. In The Blue Tango, Eoin McNamee’s novel set in the 1950s, Protestant businessmen use Catholic lawyers because they don’t want their own side to know about their dealings. In today’s Northern Ireland, a similar arrangement operates on a far grander scale: the division between Orange and Green -or Unionist and Nationalist, or Catholic and Protestant- maintains a political consensus that hides class conflict from view.
In Feeney’s terms you can vote ‘Green’ and be in favour of cutting corporation tax because you think big business deserves bigger subsidies, but you can also vote ‘Green’ and be set against cutting corporation tax because you oppose corporate profiteering. It doesn’t matter: they are both ‘Green’ votes.
Similarly, you can celebrate the rise of a Catholic middle class, support your local Catholic school’s policy of selecting on the basis of ability, and look down your nose at working class Protestants and how stupid you think they are, or you can deplore the effects of a segregated education system and academic selection, but the most important thing about your vote, from this view of the world, is that it is ‘Green’.
Moreover, you can be in favour of Northern Ireland’s prohibitions on abortion, and vote for a party who wants to maintain them, or you can favour free, safe and legal abortion, but the most important thing about your vote is that it is ‘Green’.
Would it come as a surprise if more people, from whatever their background, and in light of their own experience, started to see this view of the world, this way of classifying things, as ultimately suffocating? Wouldn’t you start to get sick of people telling you what you really are?
In Hamilton The Musical, King George III sings to his American subjects seeking to break from the Crown: “You’ll be back/You will see/You’ll remember you belong to me“. It didn’t quite work out that way. One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to figure out that changes in material conditions and changes in political consciousness reshape political loyalties. But it probably helps.