This is the third in a series of articles about political messaging in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica controversy. The first part discussed how it works, particularly in the messaging of the Trump and Brexit campaigns. I strongly encourage you to read that part first, if you haven’t already. The second part looked at Irish politics, from the Healy-Raes to the campaign to Repeal the Eighth amendment. Here, I look at northern Ireland politics and the Good Friday Agreement; timed to coincide with the #agreement20 conference in Manchester, which I’m attending.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, the DUP were subjected to some scrutiny when it was revealed that they had previously paid tens of thousands to an associated company, Aggregate IQ, both during the Brexit referendum and the 2017 Assembly election.

As yet, we don’t know what that money was spent on. In terms of micro-targeting voters with emotionally-based messaging, if that’s what the DUP paid for, they wasted their money.

If you haven’t read the previous pieces,a brief TLDR. Political messaging is all about emotion, not analytical consideration of facts and policies. Messages are usually believed when they come from a source already emotionally trusted – whether politicians themselves, the media, or friends and family. Messages work best when they emotionally resonate with existing values and beliefs. Truth is irrelevant. Voters’ brains actually activate the reward centres when rationalising away contradictory messages from their side. This leaves voters open to escalation, where sources become a trusted messenger, promote particular values, and then emotionally resonate with them. Manipulative messages are usually based on escalation. They usually aren’t completely true, and can often be identified by controversy – which reinforces them. Microtargeting, as done by Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ, just increases the efficiency of either genuine or manipulative messaging – it’s not a new style of campaigning.

It should be clear why I say the DUP wasted their money: there’s few places in the world where emotions are higher about politics than the six northeastern counties of the island of Ireland. Both nationalist and unionist sides are fundamentally based on national identity – one of the strongest possible emotional drivers already, here consistently reinforced by the political messaging. The unionist side is also driven by fear: fear of losing the union, and what that might bring; while the nationalist side is also driven by anger and resentment, and a siege mentality. Strong emotions all round.

During the Brexit campaign, we saw microtargeted manipulative messaging using escalation. But there’s no need for micro-targeting in northern Ireland, because you don’t need different messages for different people. Each side in northern Ireland is targeting only their own community for votes, and there’s only one message that matters to each community.

But it also matters who delivers that message.

That’s very clear from the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, and the aftermath.

In the weeks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, I was 16 and was as full of hope as a polar bear would be in the Sahara desert. I was absolutely certain that it would amount to nothing. I could not see any way that the sides would reach an agreement. I thought they were wasting their time. Of course, they did; both sides made major compromises, and surprisingly, were able to sell them to voters.

Nationalists gave up almost everything in the Agreement. They conceded to the return of Stormont, gave up the Irish constitutional territorial claim, and recognised the position of the north in the UK, with a border poll the only route to a united Ireland.

It cannot be overstated what a massive climb-down this was. The previous nationalist position was that since the border was an arbitrary line drawn specifically to maximise the British/Unionist majority within as large an area as possible, Northern Ireland was a gerrymandered state, and such a vote would be meaningless. This is often misunderstood as objecting to democracy, but it’s actually not – rather, it’s questioning the extent of the area over which democracy should apply. They held that since the entire island had a massive majority for independence when the Free State was created, that all of Ireland should have been independent from then. This was a core principle on which they surrendered completely (which, as I’ve previously written, was only possible due to the five freedoms of the EU).

In return, they got almost nothing. An end to discrimination, which would have been normal in any other country in the world. Some north-south bodies, a guarantee of powersharing in the Stormont Assembly, and a guarantee that border poll showing a majority for a UI would be respected. It’s a long way from a united Ireland.

By any rational analysis, you would expect nationalists to at least have been split. Yet nationalists overwhelmingly approved the agreement, and not a single anti-agreement nationalist has ever been elected since. On the basis of the facts, it doesn’t make sense. So, why?

Two reasons: John Hume, and Martin McGuinness.

Hume, a founding member and long-serving leader of the SDLP, was the effective leader of nationalism in the north. Involved in the Civil Rights movement, and strenuously standing up for nationalism in the Westminster Parliament, he was a political giant, and us widely credited with creating the circumstances that led to the IRA ceasefire, and starting the peace process. It’s not just that he was respected across the board by nationalists – it’s impossible to imagine anyone being more respected. He was trusted almost completely.

McGuinness was an IRA leader, and had almost complete respect and trust from those who supported, in their words, the armed struggle. He hadn’t just talked the talk; he’d walked the walk, and risked everything for it. Gerry Adams may have been the public face of Sinn Féin, but McGuinness was the one who mattered.

For most nationalist voters, it didn’t matter what the details were. If Hume and McGuinness, their trusted messengers, could sign up to it, so could they.

On the unionist side, it looks simpler, but it wasn’t. They got a lot – the union maintained, a guarantee that the UK wouldn’t unilaterally end the union, the return of Stormont, the constitutional claim gone. They conceded little: powersharing, the possibility of a border poll which seemed (and to them, still seems only a distant possibility), and the release of paramilitary prisoners. An easy sell, yes? Well, no.

The UUP, along with the loyalist UFF/UDA linked UDP, and the UVF linked PUP, signed up. The DUP did not. Unionists were massively split on approval. Again, analytically, dispassionately, this doesn’t make sense. So why?

Two main reasons. First, while both sides made compromises on what they wanted, only the unionists made compromises on what they already had. Unionists had everything. Every compromise was, for them, giving up something they already had. Agreeing to share power, having ruled alone for decades. Agreeing to a possible future border poll, risking the union. This resonated with their fear.

Second, many unionists simply do not recognise the validity of Irish identity and political nationalism. This can be seen in recent polling data, with a clear majority of unionists saying that a border poll should need a 70%+ vote for a united Ireland to pass – the Never, Never, Me, Ulster Says No attitude. Many say that no matter what the vote, there should never be a united Ireland. Only 16% – sixteen! – agree that 50%+1, as normal for almost every other vote anywhere, should be enough.

It’s also evident in the recent statement by Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, that she’d emigrate in the event of a United Ireland – a clear revelation that her identity is based on superiority and a colonial mindset, just like those British who left India, South Africa, Rhodesia, and more. Sadly, she is not the only unionist with this mindset.

For these voters, making any concessions to nationalism is a difficult sell. But more, to see Sinn Féin brought into the political process, to see IRA prisoners released – it was anathema to them. It was betrayal. Trusted as David Trimble was as leader of the UUP, the anger at Sinn Féin and the IRA could not be overcome, and so many sided with the opposing DUP, and it’s leader, Ian Paisley.

Paisley had been a staunch, outspoken, and controversial unionist for decades, and like Hume and McGuinness on the nationalist side, had become a trusted messenger for many in his community. His formation of a new party, the DUP, held him back somewhat, as his success depended on breaking the political inertia that kept voters supporting the UUP. Until the agreement, although Paisley was a major figure, an MP and MEP, the DUP was only a small party, taking only two of 18 MPs at the 1997 general election.

Paisley’s opposition to the talks and the agreement resonated with unionist fears for the union and anger at the legitimacy inclusion in the process gave to Sinn Féin. Many joined him, and voted against the agreement.

However, enough unionists stayed with the UUP, and voted for it. It passed, with a large majority.

None of these factors are about the facts of the agreement. It wasn’t a rational decision, by almost anyone. It was all based on emotions – hope to end the conflict, trust in leaders, and for no voters, fear and betrayal. Hope won.

The emotions haven’t gone away, you know – to borrow a phrase. They still control everything in northern Ireland politics. This can be seen in events post-agreement, up to today.

It can be seen in how Sinn Féin and the DUP usurped the SDLP and UUP as the biggest parties.

On the unionist side, it comes back to that agreement. The DUP opposed, and so became in unionist eyes the biggest defenders of the union. The UUP had historically been the defenders of the union, and had they not signed up to the agreement (or had all unionists) they would have continued to be such. As unionists were split, with the UUP as the unionist proponents of the Agreement, every concession to nationalists and Sinn Féin was seen by some unionist voters as a betrayal by the UUP of unionism. In agreeing to the compromises, the UUP had signed up to their own demise, and they kept compromising. Throughout the first Assembly, unionist voters moved to the DUP, who consistently attacked Trimble and the UUP for concessions to nationalists. The DUP played on their voters’ antipathy to nationalism, and their fear of the demise of the union – a much easier message than the necessity of compromise. It worked.

Meanwhile, the incessant DUP attacks on the UUP had a secondary effect – they resonated with nationalist voters’ sense of unfairness, their feelings that unionists didn’t respect their identity. They made nationalists voters angry. Nationalists felt attacked, and the more the DUP hammered home against the UUP, the more nationalist voters identified with and gravitated towards the party under attack – Sinn Féin. The retirement of John Hume and Seamus Mallon didn’t help, with the SDLP replacing highly trusted messengers with the uncharismatic Mark Durkan, who simply didn’t resonate with nationalist voters in the same way.

The UUP vote actually went up in the 2003 election. Their voters trusted them and stayed with them. The DUP vote went up by more, all but wiping out the smaller unionist parties like the UKUP, as the anti-agreement unionist voters coalesced around their biggest party. The SDLP, by contrast, directly lost ground to Sinn Féin, the stronger nationalists.

The DUP entering powersharing with Sinn Féin was seen as a betrayal only by a minority of unionists, because of Ian Paisley. With his history as an outspoken defender of unionism, he was a trusted messenger to all but the most intransigent unionists. They would have followed him wherever he led; and they followed him where they hadn’t followed David Trimble.

The powersharing deal was done – only the fringe on both sides were now out in the cold. Jim Allister’s TUV may have had the same message as the DUP had previously espoused, opposition to compromise; but they did not have the trusted status to match Paisley, and so remained (and remain) a fringe. Anti-agreement nationalists, of course, have never come close to winning even a single Assembly seat.

Since then, it hasn’t mattered what other policies the DUP and Sinn Féin have: they are the main proponents of their respective identities. Attacks on each other have both generated and resonated with antipathy from each side, driving more and more voters to support them: the escalation model. That the attacks generally come from each other has merely reinforced this.

The hold-outs still voting UUP and SDLP are mostly those with political inertia, the ones who have voted that way for years. There are some on the nationalist side for whom Sinn Féin’s history is enough to prevent them ever voting for them, because of the negative emotions attached; so the SDLP will continue to attract new first time voters, but not many.

The role of emotions is evident in everything in northern Ireland politics. The restrictions on flying the union flag, to a level ordinary in Britain, resonated with unionist fears of losing their identity and the union. Arlene Fosters attack on nationalism as crocodiles that keep coming back for more resonated with nationalist feelings that unionists do not respect their identity; the same for the DUP’s refusal to agree to an Irish Language Act. Emotions are why despite widespread frustrations with politicians, the needles barely moved in opinion polls after the Valentine’s Day break-upValentine’s Day break-up of the most recent talks. Emotions are why the middle ground parties can’t capitalise on the frustrations; and so Alliance and the Greens remain small. They can’t connect with voters emotionally in a way that is stronger than their emotions connected to identity. And emotions are why Brexit could fundamentally change northern Ireland politics.


Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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