Extremist Outbidding in Ethnic Party Systems is Not Inevitable: Tribune Parties in Northern Ireland

AuthorPaul Mitchell,Brendan O'Leary,Geoffrey Evans
Published date01 June 2009
Date01 June 2009
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2008.00769.x
Subject MatterArticle
Extremist Outbidding in Ethnic Party Systems is Not Inevitable: Tribune Parties in Northern Ireland

P O L I T I C A L S T U D I E S : 2 0 0 9 VO L 5 7 , 3 9 7 – 4 2 1
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2008.00769.x
Extremist Outbidding in Ethnic Party
Systems is Not Inevitable: Tribune Parties in
Northern Ireland

Paul Mitchell
Geoffrey Evans
Brendan O’Leary
London School of Economics
University of Oxford
University of Pennsylvania
and Political Science
The ethnic outbidding thesis predicts centrifugal polarisation in ethnically divided party systems. We
argue instead that the incentives of power-sharing institutions can encourage the development of electoral
strategies based on ‘ethnic tribune appeals’ in which parties combine robust ethnic identity representation
with increased pragmatism over resource allocation. We test these arguments in Northern Ireland and
show that though evidence of direct vote switching from moderate parties to ostensibly ‘extreme’ parties
is prima facie consistent with the outbidding thesis, attitudinal convergence between the nationalist and
unionist communities on the main political issues is not. The recent electoral success of the DUP and
Sinn Féin can instead be explained by these parties’ ‘ethnic tribune’ appeals. Many voters simultaneously
endorse peace, prosperity and (increasingly) power sharing but also want the strongest voice to protect
their ethnonational interests. Identity voting for ethnic tribune parties implies a degree of resolve in
advocating ethnic group interests, but does not entail the increased polarisation implied by outbidding
models. Like their voters, ethnic tribune parties can be simultaneously pragmatic (with regard to
resources) and intransigent (with regard to identity), so that despite appearances to the contrary, the
power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland incentivise centripetal dynamics that inhibit outbidding.
Societies that are deeply riven along a preponderant ethnic cleavage – as in many
Asian and African states – tend to throw up party systems that exacerbate ethnic
conflict. By appealing to electorates in ethnic terms, by making ethnic demands on
government, and by bolstering the influence of ethnically chauvinist elements
within each group, parties that begin by merely mirroring ethnic divisions help to
deepen and extend them (Horowitz, 1985, p. 291).
Places deeply divided by ethnic cleavages often develop sharply opposed ethnic
political parties. Since the appeals of such parties are ascriptive and exclusive, they
may be less well placed to perform the aggregative functions conducive to
democratic stability, or as Giovanni Sartori says, to ‘take a non-partial approach to
the whole’ (Sartori, 1976, p. 26). Indeed, once an ethnic party system is fully
mobilised the ethnic outbidding thesis predicts a contagion of extremist politics
which destabilises and ultimately prevents conflict regulation within a democratic
framework (Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972).
But even in ethnic party systems, electoral competition is not inevitably and
relentlessly centrifugal. Well-designed power-sharing institutions can provide
electoral incentives towards inter-ethnic cooperation, provided that the parties
making the centripetal moves believe that they can protect themselves against
flanking by rival intra-ethnic parties and/or by new entrants.1 Successful electoral
mobilisation based on ‘ethnic tribune’ appeals – an ethnic valence2 – in the
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Political Studies Association

398
PAU L M I T C H E L L , G E O F F R E Y E VA N S A N D B R E N DA N O ’ L E A RY
context of mandatory power sharing can explain the electoral success of formerly
hard-line ethnic parties even as they moderate their policies.
This article is a case study of the transformation of the party system in Northern
Ireland following an end to armed conflict in 1994,3 which in turn facilitated the
negotiation of a new power-sharing institutional framework, the Good Friday or
Belfast Agreement of 1998. There had been a widespread expectation that the
moderate Irish nationalist SDLP, as the principal architect of the 1998 Good
Friday Agreement, and the Ulster Unionist party (UUP), its ‘partner in peace’,
would receive electoral rewards for reaching a historic compromise.4 Their leaders
did win the Nobel Peace Prize, but no comparable electoral prizes. It was mostly
unanticipated that the hard-line parties (Sinn Féin among nationalists and the
Democratic Unionist party [DUP] among unionists) would be the electoral
beneficiaries of the peace process at the expense of the respective moderates in
their own blocs. Indeed, the formerly extremist parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin,
are now the dominant electoral forces in Northern Ireland (see Figure 1 and
Table 1 for the extent of the transformation), so much so that on 8 May 2007 the
allegedly ‘impossible’ happened: the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to jointly lead a
new power-sharing government.5
The article aims to explain this transformation of the party system and the underlying
shifts in patterns of voting. The first section examines the logic of outbidding in
ethnic party systems and the consequences for conflict regulation. The second
Figure 1: Electoral Support in Northern Ireland, 1970–2007
55.0
50.0
45.0
1st IRA
GFA
AIA
Ceasefire
DUP
40.0
SF
SDLP
UUP
35.0
APNI
30.0
% Vote 25.0
20.0
15.0
10.0
5.0
0.0
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
2
2
2
2
2
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
9
0
0
0
0
0
0
7
7
7
7
7
7
7
7
8
8
8
8
8
8
9
9
9
9
9
9
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
3
3
4
4
5
7
9
1
2
3
5
7
9
2
3
6
7
7
8
1
1
3
5
5
7
W
L
A
W
W
C
L
W
L
A
W
L
W
L
W
L
F
W
L
A
W
L
A
W
L
A
Election
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Political Studies Association
POLITICAL STUDIES: 2009, 57(2)

O U T B I D D I N G I N E T H N I C PA RT Y S Y S T E M S
399
Table 1: Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, 1998–2007
DUP
UUP
Sinn Féin
SDLP
Votes
Seats
Votes
Seats
Votes
Seats
Votes
Seats
1998
18
18.5
21.3
25.9
17.7
16.7
22
22.2
2003
25.6 (+42)
27.8
22.7 (+5)
25
23.5 (+33)
22.2
17 (-23)
16.7
2007
30.1 (+67)
33.3
14.9 (-30)
16.7
26.2 (+48)
25.9
15.2 (-31)
14.8
Note: Figures show each party’s first-preference percentage vote and seat shares (and in brackets the ⫾ percentage
change relative to each party’s 1998 vote).

section examines how ethnic party systems may be rescued from the centrifugal
fate predicted by the outbidding thesis. We discuss the moderating incentives of
institutionalised power sharing and outline our concept of the ethnic tribune party.
The third section examines the survey evidence from the Northern Ireland Election
Studies, which shows substantial direct vote switches from the more moderate to
the more extreme parties. Direct vote switching from the moderate parties to the
ostensibly ‘extreme’ parties is prima facie consistent with the outbidding thesis, but
their gains are mostly explained by the DUP and Sinn Féin’s‘ethnic tribune’appeals
combined with likely compensational voting. The fourth section analyses whether
popular attitudes on some of the major principles of the Good Friday Agreement
have polarised. If the outbidding thesis is correct, increased electoral support for
more extreme parties should be accompanied by increasing attitudinal polarisation
among voters on these principles. But we demonstrate striking evidence of
attitudinal convergence. This presents a puzzle. Why do we see inter-ethnic
attitudinal convergence on more moderate policy positions at the same time that
we witness dramatically increased support for the more extreme parties? The fifth
and sixth sections confront this puzzle. The fifth section presents evidence of the
parties, especially the DUP and Sinn Féin, competing and being rewarded on the
basis of ‘ethnic tribune appeals’. The sixth section subjects this thesis to some
stringent tests by placing it in a multivariate framework in which other variables
known to be strong predictors of party support are controlled.We summarise the
findings and policy implications at the end.
The Logic of Outbidding in Ethnic Party Systems
Moderation on the ethnic issue is a viable strategy only if ethnicity is not salient.
Once ethnicity becomes salient and, as a consequence, all issues are interpreted in
ethnic terms, the rhetoric of cooperation and mutual trust sounds painfully weak.
More importantly, it is strategically vulnerable to flame fanning and the politics of
outbidding. Ceylon and Ulster provide recent examples of the vulnerability of
moderates ... In Ulster, Protestant extremists, led by the Reverend Ian Paisley, have
held the governing Unionist party in check, rendering moderation impossible
(Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972, p. 86).
© 2008 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2008 Political Studies Association
POLITICAL STUDIES: 2009, 57(2)


400
PAU L M I T C H E L L , G E O F F R E Y E VA N S A N D B R E N DA N O ’ L E A RY
Once an ethnic party system is extensively mobilised it is made up primarily of
‘ethnic parties’6 that appeal almost exclusively to voters from their own group
rather than (at least aspirationally) to all voters. Their mobilisation drives are
‘catch-us’ rather than ‘catch-all’. Few voters ‘float across’ the primary political
cleavage derived from the clash of ethnic identities. Elections resemble ethnic
‘headcounts’ or censuses. Party platforms are characterised by ethnic outbidding
among rival parties within each ethnic bloc (Horowitz, 1985, pp. 349–60;
Rabushka and Shepsle, 1972).Within-bloc competition may develop a centrifugal
dynamic as parties mobilise ‘their’ community,...

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