In the United Kingdom general election 2017 in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin won all but one Northern Irish constituencies between them. The DUP is unionist and socially conservative, whereas Sinn Féin is Irish nationalist and socially progressive. The more moderate unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), is also on the right, whereas the more moderate nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is centre-left.

It appears that all successful unionist parties are on the right, whereas all successful nationalist parties are on the left. There are small progressive unionist parties, such as the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), but they're unsuccessful. As far as I'm aware, there doesn't even exist a right-wing pro-Irish-nationalism party in Northern Ireland.

Why is this division so stark? Suppose that I'm an Irish catholic who very much wants to see a united Ireland, but I am socially and fiscally conservative. Within the Republic of Ireland, I could vote for Fine Gael, but this party does not participate in Northern Ireland. Likewise, if I am socially liberal and want to see a strong welfare state, but also want to see Northern Ireland remain in the United Kingdom, there really isn't any party I would identify with.

Why is it that there are no right-wing pro-Irish-unification parties or (successful) left-wing pro-UK parties within Northern Ireland?

NB: There is some discussion of Fianna Fail to stand for elections in Northern Ireland in 2019 — I believe this is a centrist, pro-Irish unity party.

  • 1
    You seem the same in the US. The right-wingers fight for the status-quo, while the left-wingers fight for change (gay marriages, LGBT rights, etc). Jun 11, 2017 at 17:07
  • 3
    @JonathanReez: I suspect it's also why so many Americans are not enthralled with either party. E.g. I might like Republican economic policies, but be utterly opposed to most of their social policies, and vice versa with the Democrats.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 11, 2017 at 17:39
  • I suspect this is less a case of voting for who you would ideally want to win and who, out of the two parties you see as having a chance, do you think is the lesser of two evils. If everyone on the left split their votes between two parties and everyone on the right went far right then the left would lose out.
    – Ludo
    Jun 12, 2017 at 10:25
  • 1
    @Ludo Such splitting does happen within the Republican camp (Sinn Féin, SDLP), and within the Unionist camp (DUP, UUP), but the Republican parties are both left or centre-left, and the Unionist parties are both right- or centre-right.
    – gerrit
    Jun 12, 2017 at 10:33
  • 1
    @Ludo That may be less true (at least for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly), given that Assembly elections are held under a form of proportional representation (and, indeed, ranked voting), so splitting the vote carries less of a penalty.
    – owjburnham
    Jun 12, 2017 at 13:52

5 Answers 5


This is a complex question. Relevant factors include, but are not limited to the following:

  • It's easy to overstate the social liberalism of Sinn Fein. It has historically had strong ties to the Catholic Church, and only dropped its opposition to abortion in 2015. Northern Ireland is in general a socially conservative place; in contrast to the mainland UK, it does not recognise same-sex marriage and has significantly more restrictive abortion laws.
  • It's also easy to overstate the fiscal conservatism of the DUP. In 2017, their price for supporting the Conservative minority government was £1 billion of extra public spending in NI, which is hardly a fiscally conservative position.
  • Fiscally conservative policies tend to be supported by higher-income voters. Roughly speaking, NI unionist voters tend to have more money than nationalists, for reasons which include historic discrimination against the nationalist community.
  • The first-past-the-post system used for Westminster elections encourages parties to form broad coalitions of support, and punishes smaller parties such as the PUP. In NI, coalitions have been formed along unionist/nationalist lines. So differences within Sinn Fein on social or fiscal policy are contained, because the unionist/nationalist division is seen as paramount; and similarly for the DUP.
  • I tihnk your last point is the most important one to be honest. FPTP systems strongly encourage a bipolar system. Once that's established both parties can become extreme with no issues losing voters. Voting for the SDLP or UUP is a waste, they are not going to get elected. No republican would vote for the DUP and no unionist would vote for SF. It would take something extreme to shake up the system enough to allow a third (or fourth) party to become viable. Maybe Brexit is it. Fingers crossed.
    – Eric Nolan
    Oct 18, 2018 at 9:40

The short of it is that Catholics had no social power to conserve, and working class Protestants had nothing to gain by allying with working class Catholics.

First, we have to understand that Northern Irish politics is neither "progressive" nor "socially conservative" in a contemporary sense. These are terms which can only be applied to the most recent developments (less than ten years ago).

The reason for this is that from its inception in 1921 the Northern Irish state was, in the words of its first leader, ruled by a "protestant parliament for a protestant people". It was more like colonial minority rule (Apartheid South Africa or South Vietnam) than functional multiparty democracy.

During the 1960s Americans and Brits enjoyed a burst of progressive politics. America enacted the Civil Rights Act in 1964, while in 1967 Westminster decriminalised homosexuality and legalised abortion in England, Scotland, and Wales.

Meanwhile in Ulster, Catholics still suffered legal discrimination in 1969. Consequently, unemployment in Catholic areas was painfully high, sometimes as much as 70%, with up to three generations of men in the same family never having had a real job. Not only were Catholics excluded from the nation's Protestant industries, but the security apparatus was almost entirely Protestant.

Unionist politicians largely refused to share power with Catholics, and those Unionists who did propose reforms quickly found that this was political suicide. Most famously Northern Ireland's fourth Prime Minister, Terence O'Neill, who lost his seat to none other than Ian Paisley in 1969. Consider this statement made by O'Neill in 1969:

It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consideration and kindness they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church

By modern standards, if this were said by a politician about any minority group it would be considered unforgivably bigoted. And yet this sentiment was thought too liberal by many unionists.

Given all this, politics was framed in an essentially Cold War context of national liberation versus colonial regime. The working class was divided by religious affiliation, and efforts to bridge that divide failed as sectarian violence exploded. Most people who had been living in mixed communities were burned out of their homes or fled to the security of their own side. This physically separated an already divided working class.

In the 1960s the IRA adopted Marxism, given the failure of their 1956-62 Border Campaign. During the 1950s the IRA had underestimated British military capability, and in many cases was actually ignorant of the Protestant majority in the north. This led to the conclusion that only through the creation of class consciousness could the working class in both communities join forces to overthrow the bourgeois elite. This meant a reduction of military capability as focus shifted to community organising.

But as sectarian rioting escalated in 1969 many Catholics regarded IRA strategy as far removed from imminent security concerns. The IRA's leadership refused to deploy weapons to defend Catholic communities from Protestant mobs, fearing this would make things worse and undermine diplomatic efforts.

A new generation of militant young republicans viewed this reticence as cowardice and betrayal. They rebelled, creating the 'Provisional' IRA (Sinn Fein is their political wing), who split from the 'Official' IRA. The new 'Provos' crafted an ideology which mixed class struggle with national liberation and traditional Irish religious nationalism. In their opinion Catholics would only be emancipated when British forces left and Unionist rule ended.

Similarly, Protestants believed any concessions towards Catholic emancipation were a betrayal. Each concession was a step towards a united Ireland, and thus Catholic domination and the loss of Protestant religious freedom.

Basically, there was no Catholic aristocracy, industrialists, or middle class in Ulster to form a traditionally "socially conservative" political movement. To have social conservatism one really needs groups with social power worth conserving; Catholics had none.

For Protestants, working class solidarity was a non-starter, as power and wealth were bound tightly to Protestant religious identity. The Protestant working class had nothing to gain from allying with Catholics, as they already dominated traditional industry in the north. It's closer to the experience of working class whites in Apartheid South Africa, or working class Catholics in South Vietnam, who would gain nothing, and potentially lose everything, for collaborating with the majority underclass.

That history is the foundation upon which contemporary Northern Irish politics is based, and these core ideas have become ideological articles of faith for either side.


It's worth considering that the left right spectrum doesn't do well at encompassing all political positions 1. To put this in context if we take the left to be socialism/communism and the right to be capitalism then we totally miss out things that might be considered to be more important (at least to some people) such as nationalism vs unionism, Catholicism vs Protestantism and conservatism vs liberalism. This may be particularly important in Ireland where there are or have been significant divisions between Catholics and Protestants and unionists and nationalists

Taking this into account these cross spectrum groups form parties that align to shared interests of these groups. For example the DUP arose from the Ulster Protestant Action which would naturally align with pro unionists so as to remain a part of the protestant UK.

Additionally, the UK government as a whole tends to be right of center in particular during to 2017 election Labour representing the left were not expected to win. Logically this would suggest that those leaning to the left would wish to leave as their left wing policies are unlikely to gain traction in the UK parliament. This draws parallels with Scotland who also have a strong left wing pro Independence party

Furthermore, UK parliament election are based on first past the post - this has a tendency to disadvantage smaller or less well established parties. As Sinn féin is a long established party and the DUP arose directly out of the "troubles" these are well established parties. They also have a large established vote share making them good candidates for the tactical vote.


Combining the above the the first past the post system creates a tendency to form larger parties (as smaller parties tend not to get power) from groups with some shared goals. In Northern island the most important issues may not fit well into the spectrum therefore parties would tend to form along other lines and the parties positions in the spectrum may arise naturally from these other positions or from those people that these positions attract. Looking at how policies align with he UK is one possible way to see why the political groupings arise as described in the question

  • 2
    Although there are insightful remarks here I find it difficult to tell what it is exactly what you are trying to say.
    – gerrit
    Oct 12, 2017 at 22:49
  • @gerrit I've edited the answer to try and bring it together a little. Hope this helps Oct 13, 2017 at 9:49

Nationalists and Unionists represent two different social, economic and religious groups within Northern Ireland. It is these differences than lead to differences in political philosophy. Unionists are predominantly Protestant, and on average wealthier and more established in the middle class. Nationalists are predominantly Catholics, on average poorer, and less established in the middle class.

Protestant social ethic tends to believe in the importants of personal responsibility and the idea that everyone is in charge of their own destiny. These ideas are libertarian in nature and lead to a right wing point of view where less government involvement in people’s lives it better. The Catholics social ethic tends to puts an important on helping your neighbour, a left wing point of view.

Wealthier people people in general are more conservative than poorer people simply because the current system in working well for them. Middle class people tend to be more sceptical of increased taxation because when compared to the poor or rich, progressive tax systems effect their disposable income the greatest. They often are less aware of of how they benefit from increased taxes.

A similar phenomena occurs in the United States where practising Catholics predominantly support Democrat and practising Protestants predominantly support Republicans.


Simple explanations of politics in Northern Ireland are usually wrong

There is a piece of not-well-known history that illuminates some of the issues. Northern Ireland has had a party that was both pro-union and socialist in outlook and understanding why it failed is instructive. This was the Commonwealth Labour Party.

Its failure illuminates the generalizations and "just so" stories that seem to explain why politics in Northern Ireland (NI) work the way they currently do and shows why many of these are not convincing. Sometimes the details are complicated (as are many things in the province).

Before the Second World war the dominant socialist party in the north was the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP). This party was led by a committed socialist and unionist called Harry Midgley. But the party was internally somewhat split on the issue of the union: many members did not support partition; for a time the majority did. Midgley wrote an article in 1936 arguing that socialism could never succeed in NI if nationalist and unionist could not put aside the issue of the border and vote for a single party with left-wing ideals.

While Midgley's call had some cross-community support he damaged his relations with many catholics by coming out strongly in support of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (at a time when catholics were being strongly urged by the church to support Franco's military rebellion). This was one of several factors undermining his support in the NILP.

While he continued to advocate a socialist but unionist position, many others in the NILP did not share his view and refused to back down on their opposition to partition even during WW2 when there might have been more important things to worry about. This culminated in a party split in 1942 when Midgley could not get the NILP to agree to support the current partition of Ireland as part of the party platform. So he left and founded the Commonwealth Labour Party (CLP), which explicitly accepted the unionist position while remaining a left wing party.

Midgley sat in the Stormont Parliament at the start of WW2 (originally elected as an NILP member). He was co-opted into the government in 1943 as Minister for Public Security, the first time the NI government ever had a non Unionist-party member in it.

The party stood and attracted some support in the 1945 post-war election that brought a Labour landslide in the rest of the UK. But the left wing vote split with the NILP reduced their chances of winning seats, though Midgley was (again) elected to Stormont.

For a short time it looked as though he might be able to build on the idea of a left wing but pro union party, despite competition from left-wing alternatives like the NILP. But instead of building on his new party, Midgley joined the governing unionist party in 1947 (possibly tempted by the prospect of a ministerial post: he was minister of education in the 1950s) causing many of his supporters to have a long lasting cynicism about politics and effectively destroying the party he created.

The factors that destroyed this fledgling party were varied:

  • left wing politicians were split on the importance of supporting–at least temporarily–the union
  • cross-community support was eroded because Midgley and others supported the republican side in the Spanish Civil War while catholics were strongly whipped to support Franco's rebellion
  • parties (the NILP in particular) were often dominated by personalities and their whims undermined the overall coherence of their ideas
  • Midgley–who had the reputation and force of personality to, perhaps, make a sustained run with the CLP was, it seems, more tempted to join the government than to campaign for socialist ideals
  • there was a great deal of unionist party skullduggery to undermine any threat to their hegemony in NI politics

But a key point is that, had circumstances and personalities at a particular time been different, there might have been a left wing party that supported the union. It was not inevitable that the CLP was a failure; many very specific things led to its downfall, not just inevitable forces.

The complete story of the CLP is long and convoluted. For full details read The Politics of Frustration: Harry Midgley and the failure of Labour in Northern Ireland by Graham Walker.

You must log in to answer this question.

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