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Ethnic competition and the logic of party system transformation


John Coakley, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, Ireland. E-mail:


This article adapts and expands a recent model of ethnic competition by exploring its implications over a long period spanning crucial stages in the modernisation of the political system. It illustrates the model by reference to developments in Northern Ireland since its modern party system was launched in the 1880s. This offers an exceptionally clear example of the interaction of central elements of the model: the initial bedding down of a system of bipartisan ethnic competition, with two parties having a remarkable capacity to resist ethnic outbidding; the fragmentation of this system following the introduction of a set of major institutional forms that facilitated ethnic outbidding; and the continuing resilience of ethnically based parties in warding off challenges from groups seeking to prioritise other political dimensions. The model's implications are tested against a comprehensive collection of ecological and survey data.