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Distant Cousins: Northern Ireland and United States

The political dysfunction on either side of the Atlantic always struck me as odd. Northern Ireland is for all intents and purposes a two-party system and so is the US. This is only a surface level similarity however. Beyond the political infrastructure, there are deeper relations that extend to cultural similarities which manifest along political lines in both nations.


United States


Lifestyles and the resultant political views are broadly said to be liberal or conservative. In the U.S the Democrats are perceived to represent liberalism while the Republicans are conservative in their approach. Although this has not always been the case. Abraham Lincoln (Republican) emancipated slaves and secured the 13th amendment of the constitution. Legislation does not equate to acceptance however and some 90 years later the civil rights movement roared. John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson (Democrats) acted to further Lincoln’s work by weakening conservative (read racist) values. Suddenly the previously conservative Democrats represented socially progressive movements while Republicans represented the conservative argument.


Northern Ireland


Although Northern Ireland lacks the history of U.S political representation there is a clear distinction between conservative and liberal parties. Similarly to the U.S there are sectarian/racial connotations associated with these parties. Sinn Fein traditionally has represented Irish Catholics whereas the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) represents British Protestants. As Northern Ireland was formed to protect British protestant interests this left Catholics in a similar position to black Americans, fighting for civil rights.


Two Party System


Much has happened since the civil rights movements in NI and the U.S but these identities have remained attached to political identity. The two party systems only exacerbate the issues of racial or sectarian division in both societies. Policy debates are less important than creating a personal identification with voters during election periods and identity politics is the consequence. The deep entrenchment that has occurred in the last decade or two was borne of identity politics stirring up fears in the electorate who have mainly sought to confirm their biases. The resultant retrenchment has damaged both societies. To lay the blame at the two party system would ignore the other problems such as ignorance and representatives spouting lies. However reformation of each political systems would provide a sturdier base to build a stronger society.