One view of party competition and voting behaviour in deeply divided places is that fierce intra-community party competition leads to parties becoming more and more extreme (Horowitz, 1985; Rabuska and Shepsle, 1972). This is because any move in a moderate or conciliatory direction by a party leaves it vulnerable to being ‘outflanked’ by a competing party which accuses it of ‘selling out’ the ethnic group. Hence, parties compete with each other to offer the most hard-line defence of the ethnic group, leading to a spiral of moves in an extreme direction by parties in each of the ethnic blocs and, consequently, a lowering of the probability of any meaningful cross-community cooperation between parties of the different ethnic blocs.
This rather grim ‘ethnic outflanking’ reading of party competition is, as argued by Paul Mitchell et al. (2009) and John Garry (2009), conditional on at least two factors: voters' positions and institutional design. If voters are indeed hard line and become increasingly hard line then parties' movements in an extreme direction will be electorally rewarded (and, therefore, incentivised). Similarly, if there are no institutional features that minimise or offset incentives to extreme movement by parties, such movement may well flourish. On the other hand, if voters are, and remain, relatively moderate, movement in an extreme direction by parties will result in losses (and is hence disincentivised); and if political institutions are carefully set up to resolve the conflict by rewarding – with real political power – moves in a moderate direction by hard-line parties, party movement in a polarised direction is less likely to occur.
As argued by Garry (2009) in relation to Northern Ireland, the existence of relatively moderate voters plus the strong incentives to moderate party positions generated by consociational institutions led to ostensibly ‘extreme’ parties (the Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] and Sinn Féin in the Protestant/unionist and Catholic/nationalist blocs, respectively) adopting more conciliatory positions. Compromises were made by these parties relating to constitutional preferences and attitudes to power sharing, such that both parties appeared to encroach upon the relatively moderate positions of, respectively, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The fact that both main parties in each competing bloc became very similar on these key ethnonational or ‘conflict’ issues led to a reduction in the role played by constitutional preferences, identity and attitudes to power sharing in driving vote choice in the 2007 Assembly election (at least in the unionist bloc) (Garry, 2009).
Mitchell et al. (2009) argue that these compromises made by Sinn Féin and the DUP on constitutional and power-sharing issues have indeed led to both parties in each bloc currently occupying the moderate centre ground, irrespective of the parties' formerly extreme positions. However, what does now differentiate the parties in each bloc is how capable the parties are perceived to be at representing the interests of their community in the executive – that is, their capacity to act as ethnic tribune parties. Once all parties in a deeply divided place have agreed to share power, and have thus, essentially, accepted the legitimacy of the state, constitutional issues recede in importance and are replaced by the now crucial issue of how resources are to be allocated by the new power-sharing government. Voters assess the relative competence of each of the parties in their bloc to ‘deliver’ for that community in the power-sharing government and the party best placed to ‘perform well’ in terms of representing their community's interests will be electorally rewarded (Mitchell et al., 2009).
Prior Position Cues Current ‘Ethnic Tribune’ Valence Assessment
According to Mitchell et al. (2009) – and similarly argued by Mitchell and Geoffrey Evans (2009) and by John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary (2009) – within-community party competition has moved away from being issue based (i.e. relating to parties' positions, in this case on constitutional matters and power sharing) and has instead become valence based (i.e. relating to relative evaluations of parties' reputations for efficiently performing a particular function,1 in this case parties robustly representing their community in resource-allocation decision making in the executive). Essentially, movement by the ‘extreme’ parties to the centre ground on constitutional issues is married to a robust reputation on community representation and it is this combination of issue moderation and valence robustness that explains the recent electoral success of the DUP and Sinn Féin.
An important aspect of Mitchell et al. 's (2009) argument is that this ‘combination’ is also causally related, in the sense that the extent to which a party has a reputation for robustly defending the interests of the community (i.e. its ‘tribune’ reputation) is a function of the party's former position on constitutional matters. For clarity, I sketch Mitchell et al.'s (2009) description of changes in party position that underpins their ‘ethnic tribune party’ argument (Figure 1). Essentially, Mitchell et al. (2009) argue that a voter in a given bloc (i.e. either a nationalist voter or a unionist voter) at time 2 is faced with parties that are close in terms of ethnonational position. Performance-based voting is likely to be important at time 2 given the rise in salience of the protection of community interests in the new power-sharing government. In order to identify which party is best able to represent their group interests a voter will take into account both past and present positions of parties on the ethnonational cleavage. Mitchell et al. (2009, p. 402) state that voters in a particular community seek to be ‘represented by their “strongest voice”. Typically this will be parties with reputations for tough bargaining, and such reputations will partly be based on their past records of less-moderate policy positions’.
Figure 1. A Sketch of Mitchell et al.'s (2009) Discussion of Party Position
Note: The graph shows the movement in a moderate direction over time of the ‘extreme’ parties in each bloc (Sinn Féin and the DUP).
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Hence a nationalist voter will reason as follows: because Sinn Féin has historically been extreme/hard line on the ethnonational dimension (as per time 1 in Figure 1) Sinn Féin is currently more credible as a robust defender of community interests. Similarly a unionist voter will reason: the UUP and DUP are very similar now in terms of ethnonational position but because the DUP used to have a more extreme position than the UUP it (the DUP) is best placed to defend unionist interests staunchly. In short, position drives valence – and more specifically prior ethnonational position drives current ethnic tribune valence.
The ‘position drives valence’ argument in Mitchell et al. (2009) is consistent with the argument later elaborated by David Sanders et al. (2011) in the context of British voting behaviour. They find that:
spatial calculations act as a source of valence judgements. The hypothesis considered is that Downs undergirds Stokes – voters use spatial calculations as heuristic devices when assessing party competence. Parties viewed as closer than their competitors to voters in spatial terms are more likely to be judged as credible vehicles for achieving widely shared policy goals such as economic prosperity, health care and public safety. Analyses are consistent with this spatial cueing hypothesis (Sanders et al., 2011, p. 312).
The interesting distinction between Mitchell et al.'s (2009) argument and Sanders et al.'s (2011) argument relates to the time point of position that performs the valence cueing. In Sanders et al. (2011), it is current positional factors that cue current valence judgements, whereas in Mitchell et al. (2009) it is prior (historical) positional factors that cue current valence judgements.
Prior Position Cues Current ‘Ethnic Catch-All’ Valence Assessment
The weak ‘tribune’ reputations of certain parties (namely the UUP and the SDLP) should not necessarily be an inevitable disadvantage for the parties in the medium term. This is because the UUP and SDLP's moderate positions (historically and currently) can leave them well placed in terms of non-tribune-type representation – namely, what is here termed ethnic catch-all representation. This is the reputation for being able to, at least to some significant extent, represent both of the competing communities; or, to put it slightly differently, to represent the other community in addition to representing their own community. The consistently non-extreme positions, over time, of the UUP and the SDLP on constitutional matters (as sketched in Figure 1) arguably give them reputational credibility in terms of an ethnic catch-all function.2
Using the term ethnic catch-all to describe a party is an attempt to convey the idea of a party broadening its appeal beyond the demographic/ethnic group from which it initially attracted support. Otto Kirchheimer (1966) described as catch-all those socialist parties which sought to broaden their appeal beyond the boundaries of the working class. A catch-all party seeks to reduce the priority placed on ideology and narrow social groups and instead seeks to appeal increasingly to a broader range of citizens (Wolinetz, 2002).
In their examination of party modernisation in deeply divided places, Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Roger Mac Ginty (2008) discuss the possibility of parties broadening their electoral appeal. The authors focus on the illustrative case of the DUP and, in a similar vein to Mitchell et al.'s (2009) argument, suggest that the DUP has moved from being a staunchly and comprehensively hard-line (pre-modern or non-modern) party to a party that subtly combines elements of intransigence with elements of progressiveness/modernism. As well as increased centralisation, professionalisation, engagement with the state and employment of technologically advanced election campaigning, Gormley-Heenan and Mac Ginty discuss broadening of electoral appeal within the Protestant community as a fifth facet of DUP party modernisation: ‘Clearly, in the context of divided societies, the likelihood of a “classic” catch-all party prospering is remote … In order to maximise support in ethnic elections, parties must reflect societal fissures and garner support in their own bloc’ (Gormley-Heenan and Mac Ginty, 2008, p. 56, emphasis added). Gormley-Heenan and Mac Ginty argue that the DUP, for example, has attempted to broaden its electoral base by appealing to both the fundamentalist wing (associated with Ian Paisley) and increasingly the more secular wing of Protestants (associated with, for example, Peter Robinson).
Given Gormley-Heenan and Mac Ginty's focus on the DUP up to 2007, their conclusion that broadening of electoral appeal is constrained to being within the ethnic community (rather than across ethnic communities) may be reasonable. However, I suggest here that the movement of ethnic parties towards becoming genuinely catch-all in the sense of appealing to out-group members may well be plausible, particularly for parties whose long-established reputations as moderates give them greater credibility to reach across the divide. Hence, the parties in each bloc with conciliatory reputations – the UUP and SDLP – may reasonably be regarded as having (at least some) ethnic catch-all appeal. In the Catholic/nationalist bloc, the SDLP has a strong reputation as a consistently constitutional party – very distinct from Sinn Féin which has emerged from a violent non-constitutional tradition. The SDLP has long fostered a policy of peaceful protest and engagement in dialogue with the representatives of the ‘rival’ community (McLoughlin, 2009). In the Protestant/unionist bloc, the UUP is typically regarded as the more conciliatory party. The party's perceived moderateness led to the establishment of the Democratic Unionist Party in the early 1970s by Ian Paisley as a bulwark against any possible unionist compromise (see, for example, the discussion in Evans and Duffy, 1997). Along with the SDLP, the UUP led the way in negotiating the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, leading to the receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize by John Hume and David Trimble, respective party leaders.
A nationalist voter assessing the extent to which they support (or do not support) parties in the unionist bloc will, this article suggests, be driven by their evaluations of the capabilities of the rival bloc parties to represent all groups in society. In assessing the ethnic catch-all abilities of the parties in the rival bloc, nationalist voters will be influenced by the party positions of the rival bloc parties. They may reason as follows: the UUP and the DUP currently hold moderate ethnonational positions. However, the UUP is a much more credible actor in terms of possibly representing fairly and competently the interests of all communities because the UUP has a history of acting moderately (or at least more moderately than the DUP). Similarly, unionist voters assessing rival bloc parties are likely to regard Sinn Féin and the SDLP quite differently, given that the former party arose from a violent paramilitarism in contrast to the consistent constitutionalism of the latter. Hence, the SDLP may be regarded as a much more credible performer of the ethnic catch-all function.
In essence, in the same way that Mitchell et al. (2009) argue that prior ethnonational position cues current (ethnic tribune) valence assessments and (current within-bloc) voting, this article argues that prior ethnonational position cues current (ethnic catch-all) valence assessments and (potential cross-bloc) voting. The precise hypotheses are specified as:
- H1. Variation in Protestant citizens' likelihood of voting for the SDLP rather than Sinn Féin is a function of variation in Protestant citizens' relative evaluation of the capacity of the SDLP and Sinn Féin to perform the ethnic catch-all function.
- H2. Variation in Catholic citizens' likelihood of voting for the UUP rather than the DUP is a function of variation in Catholic citizens' relative evaluation of the capacity of the UUP and the DUP to perform the ethnic catch-all function.
Controlling for Other Predictors
A convincing test of the relationship between ethnic catch-all evaluations and potential vote for parties in the rival bloc must control for the range of current ethnonational positional factors. This is to ensure that catch-all valence evaluations are not merely picking up, or acting as proxies for, factors relating to ethnonational position. This study did not include specific questions asking respondents to indicate the position of each party in the system on an ethnonational ideological placement scale. Hence, I follow previous practice in studies of electoral behaviour in Northern Ireland and operationalise citizens' ethnonational position by measuring respondents' national identity (British/Irish/Northern Irish), constitutional preferences (united Ireland/devolution/direct rule), attitudes to power sharing (in favour or against) and ethnonational ideological self-description (unionist versus nationalist scale).3
As well as the ethnonational arena, citizens' positions on other political cleavages – relating, for instance, to the EU or socio-economic left–right dimensions – may drive levels of support for rival bloc parties. On the EU, the SDLP has a distinct position as the most Euro-enthusiastic party in Northern Ireland while the other main parties – Sinn Féin, UUP and DUP – are all, to varying degrees, Eurosceptic. Peter McLoughlin (2009, p. 603), for example, refers to the SDLP as being ‘generally viewed as the most pro-European party in Ireland’ and the party has also been described as ‘the champions of European integration in Northern Ireland’ on the basis of a survey of party candidates (Gilland Lutz and Farrington, 2006, p. 727; see also the discussion in Garry, 2012). One might imagine that pro-EU Protestants might, in theory at least, be drawn potentially to the SDLP given the absence of a pro-EU party in their own ethnic bloc. On the economic left–right dimension, the two nationalist parties are often characterised as being to the left of the two unionist parties. This is particularly so for Sinn Féin but the SDLP also has clear social democratic roots. While the UUP has often been seen as being to the right of the DUP, in recent years the DUP – despite its left-wing origins – is defining itself as a pro-business party.4