While I know that parties in NI have to self-identify as either "nationalists" or "unionists", it is unclear to me why this would have forbidden the entry of mainstream UK parties. In fact, I have read that the Tories indeed have run for elections there in the past few years only, just with little support. So why are mainstream UK parties absent in NI?

It looks like I might have missed something fairly basic, but I could not figure out what.

  • 1
    They don't have to register as nationalist or unionist. The Alliance Party of NI is neither. Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 13:01
  • It's only Members of the Legislative Assembly in Belfast that designate - as individuals - as 'nationalist', 'unionist' or 'other'. There's no requirement for candidates to do so and there's no formal designation system for those elected in other elections. However, the question says 'self-identify', not 'register' or 'designate', and that, of course, is a very different matter.
    – tmgr
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 14:01

2 Answers 2


Northern Ireland, like the rest of the UK uses the First Past The Post (FPTP) system of elections. A well-established result of this system is the formation of two-party systems. This shouldn't be taken literally - it means that two main parties will form, and compete for majorities, while other parties are much smaller.

In such two-party systems, typically one political dimension will divide the two parties. A common dimension is the "Left/Right" division, as seen in most of the UK.

The elections at stake here are parliamentary seats. This is different from presidential systems, as the two main parties that exists within one electoral district may not always align with the main national parties. This can be explained by the fact that the nationally separating dimension is locally less relevant.

In particular, it appears that the relevant dimension in NI is nationalist/unionist, and in Scotland it's similar. That's why NI has its own parties, and why the SNP has a majority in Scotland.

Why don't the main UK parties enter the NI elections? The problem is that their candidates would have to position themselves on the nationalist/unionist dimension, and they would not be as believable on that dimension as the existing NI parties. Locally, both Tories and Labour would be third parties in a two-party system.

  • So, the reason Labour has not fielded a candidate in NI since like 1926 is that that is not as cost-efficient? Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 3:49
  • Yes, they would be unlikely to win any seats.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 6:25
  • Does the Labour Party explicitely support any candidate or party in NI (if yes, which ones ?), or does it refrains to enter NI politics at all?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 12:01
  • 1
    Scotland is more complicated than you make out. It has had both left/right and unionist/nationalist axes in recent times, and a 4-party system (5 counting the Greens) in which unionist parties (eg. Labour and Tories) are as opposed to each other as to the SNP. The primary contenders in a given seat may be any two (or more) of the parties. As recently as the 2010 Westminster election, the SNP came a distant third in terms of seats, with 6 out of 59 and 20% of the vote. Commented Sep 28, 2017 at 7:44
  • To say Northern Ireland uses 'first past the post' is mainly wrong. For European Parliament, council and Stormont elections, single transferable vote is used. It is only in Westminster elections that 'first past the post' come into play. (Also, the Tories have run candidates in the North in the past; they met with little success, much as the answer predicts, although they are very definitely a unionist party, and Labour is - and always has been - committed to a united Ireland in principle. Both parties have very clear positions on the Northern Ireland 'axis', to use the answer's terms.)
    – tmgr
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 0:27

Alliance Party has actually always been associated with the Liberal Democrats, and they're both members of Liberal International. The Liberal Democrats are basically a redundant choice because they're the same as Alliance, and Alliance have policies meaningful to local politics in Northern Ireland. It'd be very unlikely that either party or voters would feel the need to vote for Liberal Democrats to spite Alliance.

Labour is in a similar situation. The SDLP and PUP already exist; nationalist and unionist labour/democratic socialist politics respectively. There's no point fielding a Labour candidate because they'd have nothing unique to offer. The SDLP however do have a relationship with Labour, while the largely irrelevant PUP is tied closely with loyalist paramilitaries.

The same isn't true for the Conservatives, because they are regarded as a functionally different and moderate alternative to the TUV, DUP, UUP. Their full name of course is the Conservative and Unionist Party. Which puts them in a unique position of relevance to local unionist politics in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.

It could be generalised that Alliance are a progressive non-sectarian and middle class option. Conservative are a traditional non-sectarian and middle class option. Working class politics in Northern Ireland is tribal, and so Labour wouldn't win anything. This also goes some way to explain why each side of the community has to have their own democratic socialist party... admittedly, that doesn't really make sense elsewhere.

  • The PUP are a democratic socialist party? Perhaps on paper, but they're really UVF representatives, not an organisation noted for its embrace of the anti-sectarianism that socialism necessitates. In any case they are a political irrelevance; they have four councillors and no Stormont seats. Unionism has never been able to create a left-wing version of itself. About as close as you get is the centrist Alliance Party, formed by nice reasonable people who found the sectarian Stormont state and Orangeism embarrassing; Alliance might designate as 'other' but it has always been de facto unionist.
    – tmgr
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 0:04
  • Incidentally, the SDLP take the Labour whip in Westminster - an informal but longstanding relationship; a vote for the SDLP is effectively a vote for Labour.
    – tmgr
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 0:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .