Group Threat at the Ground Level: Support for Ethnically Radical Parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 556 –567
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919843592
The literature on ethnic residential segregation and sup-
port for ethnic political parties has generated two theoreti-
cally compelling but conflicting research paradigms to
explain how ethnic demography might influence the elec-
toral fortunes of extremist ethnic parties, namely the
“group threat” approach—which predicts that increased
contact between groups will increase support for ethni-
cally radical parties—and the “contact hypothesis”—
which predicts that increased contact between groups will
lead to decreased support for ethnically radical parties.
Recent studies that sought to evaluate these paradigms in
a wide variety of contexts (Beaudette and Kirkpatrick
2017; Kopstein and Wittenberg 2009; Lublin and Voss
2002) have largely focused on national elections. But sig-
nificant decisions about the allocation of resources in eth-
nically sensitive areas, such as language and education
policy, are often made at the local or regional level. The
incentives that lead voters to support ethnic “tribunal par-
ties” should be even stronger at the subnational level. This
study uses data on ethnic settlement patterns and support
for Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in
elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998 to
2017 to evaluate both hypotheses in a regional context.
In line with previous findings (e.g., Beaudette and
Kirkpatrick 2017), we anticipate that the relationship
between ethnic settlement patterns and voter support for
tribunal parties will be mediated by national-level demo-
graphic trends. Specifically, groups facing a national
decline in population will be more likely to fear a loss of
status in their local communities, particularly in elections
to a regional assembly with broad allocative and agenda
setting (although not revenue raising) powers in sensitive
areas such as education and language policy. The behav-
ior of these voters—that is, the Protestant community in
Northern Ireland—should, therefore, fit with the expecta-
tions of the “group threat” literature. However, groups
that are ascendant nationally will be more likely to feel
secure in their identities and in their community’s status.
843592PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919843592Political Research QuarterlyBeaudette et al.
1Oxford College of Emory University, GA, USA
2Christopher Newport University, Newport News, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Department of Political Science, Christopher
Newport University, 1 Avenue of the Arts, Newport News, VA
23606, USA.
Group Threat at the Ground Level:
Support for Ethnically Radical Parties in
the Northern Ireland Assembly
Donald M. Beaudette1 and Andrew B. Kirkpatrick2
Ethnic settlement patterns and other forms of everyday interethnic social contact have the potential to influence voter
preferences for ethnic tribune parties who position themselves as the most strident protectors of, and flagbearers for,
their respective ethnic groups. Previous studies on this topic have come to rival conclusions, with some finding that
increased intergroup contact and residential mixing produce a corresponding increase in support for tribune parties
and others finding the opposite. This study uses a combination of data from elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly
from 1998 to 2017 and survey data from 2016 to evaluate these rival arguments and assess the extent to which the
broader institutional and demographic context in which political competition takes place condition responses to
intergroup contact. Our findings indicate that voters in both declining and ascending demographic groups respond
similarly to intergroup contact, expressing less support for tribune parties in contexts where residential patterns and
social networks provide more opportunities for intergroup contact. These results highlight the conditional nature of
the effectiveness of consensus-based institutions in divided societies: they can create incentives for moderation, but
those incentives are most likely to be realized in contexts where rival groups experience a high level of integration.
Northern Ireland, ethnic politics, elections, contact theory, group threat

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