Northern winds of change blowing

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UNIONISM has lost its Stormont majority. Founded almost 100 years ago, the Stormont of Carson and Craig is no longer a ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People.’ While the Democratic Unionist Party remains the largest party, the Northern Ireland Assembly Election of 2017 was a victory for Sinn Féin. The DUP won 28 seats, falling short of the 30 needed to effectively govern as the majority party in any power sharing government. Sinn Féin won 27 seats, which brings them into the next Assembly as equal partners. In the crude terms of orange and green, Nationalists have 39 seats, Unionists 38—a one-seat advantage to those who support a united Ireland.

The snap election was caused by the controversy over the Renewable Heating Incentive that allowed people make considerable profits by burning more fuel rather than reducing the amount of fuel used and, by the First Minister Arlene Foster’s refusal to step aside during an investigation into the scheme.

It was a bitter election, which saw the DUP’s strident approach to Irish nationalism, galvanise its core support but also galvanise its opposition. Their disdain for the Irish language and constant baiting of Irish nationalists helped mobilise the vote for Sinn Féin. One veteran SDLP figure said that immediately after Arlene Foster’s ‘crocodile’ jibe they noticed a hardening of Nationalist attitudes with previously SDLP voters drifting towards Sinn Féin.

Immediately after the election the parties’ media managers put positive spins on their performances, but undoubtedly this election was a huge victory for Sinn Féin under its new leader, Michelle O’Neill (above). Its vote management was clinical, expertly organised and very effective. Their share of the first preferences increased by nearly 4 per cent. One might have expected a dip in their overall vote because of Martin McGuinness’ decision to retire from electoral politics on health grounds, but instead it increased. All other parties north and south of the border should sit up and take note of Sinn Féin’s ability to put forward credible and attractive candidates as successors to the more established ones as they leave politics.

The squeezed middle?

The middle ground won just 36 per cent of first preference votes prompting reams of analysis in the national media. There were mixed fortunes for two of the traditional parties of the centre. The Ulster Unionist Party performed disastrously—winning just eight seats—while the Social Democratic and Labour Party won 12. The UUP lost its leader Mike Nesbitt, who resigned even before the counting had ended. Nesbitt—who attempted to forge a cross community voting alliance with the SDLP—called the result a ‘rejection of post-sectarianism.’ There is now a threat to the UUP’s actual existence.

The SDLP had a moderately good election, they won 12 seats, but lost symbolic seats such as Foyle—which was once the heartland of John Hume—and West Belfast, which saw the elimination of SDLP stalwart Alex Atwood.

Signs of cooperation between the UUP and the SDLP were present: UUP transfers were crucial for SDLP seats in Lagan Valley and East Londonderry whilst the UUP candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone was returned thanks to transfers from the SDLP.

As ever in the North, the bodhran and the Lambeg continue to beat loudly. At first glance it would seem that Northern Ireland elections continue to be too driven by tribalism and inter-communal insecurity to allow the centre-ground to emerge and feasibly offer a more normalised type of politics. But this election, and last June’s EU referendum, contains the kernel of a psychological shift in voting choices and patterns, particularly amongst Unionists.

In the middle of the SDLP and the UUP you had The Alliance Party; renewed, invigorated, and listened to. In Naomi Long it has a new, high-spirited, energetic and hardworking leader and an array of fresh, politically attractive candidates who can connect with those voters disillusion with the same old party apparatchiks. There was evidence of ‘soft’ Unionist and Protestant votes opting for the Alliance Party who got 73,000 votes.

Battle lines and red lines drawn

Negotiations have begun to form a new power-sharing executive. If the parties are unable to create a coalition within a three-week timeframe after the election, then the Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is legally obliged to call another election. There doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for this so another option is for the UK Government to extend this period, as preferred by the ex-UUP leader David Trimble. Direct Rule from Westminster or joint sovereignty with Dublin could also be an option.

Brexit and a Border Poll

The border between the North and South had almost withered away in significance since the Good Friday Agreement. However, because of Brexit it has once again become a fixture of the political landscape. Northern Ireland will be the first part of the United Kingdom to feel the effects of Brexit. Will there be a return to a hard border with British soldiers once again enforcing it?

After this election, and last year’s EU referendum, the position of the Union in Northern Ireland is less secure than before. The electorate voted—like Scotland—to remain in the EU. And, like Scotland, calls for a border poll post-Brexit are becoming louder.

Unionists could negotiate a single post-Brexit Border Poll on the understanding that it will be considered to have settled the matter for at least a generation. In such a scenario, could Nationalists mobilise sufficient cross community support to win such a poll? The SDLP have already shown themselves to be willing to vote across community and perhaps they could lay foundations to build on this.

The key to the success of a Border Poll will be Sinn Féin. There is some evidence that Sinn Fein’s new leader will attract a broader voter base, but the re-election of former Hunger Striker Raymond McCarthy should provide enough of a suitably demonic symbol to send ‘soft’ Unionist and Protestant voters back to their tribes.

Assuming core Nationalist and Unionist voters vote accordingly in such a poll then the Alliance Party and the Green Party, who have a combined vote of 100,000 will truly hold the balance of power.

Since the Brexit referendum much of the focus has been on the possibility of Scotland holding a second independence referendum, but could the North of Ireland beat the Scots to it? All the pro-Remain parties’ vote increased; many erstwhile loyal subjects now hold Irish passports and senior Unionists such as Ian Paisley Junior has admitted that the Union is less attractive than it was since Brexit. The conditions are beginning to favour Irish Nationalism and Westminster hasn’t noticed.

In the 1980s the British Government declared that the UK had ‘no selfish, strategic or economic interest in maintaining the Irish part of the Union.’ Perhaps Unionists are now considering that they too have ‘no selfish, strategic or economic interest in continuing to be part of the Union!

Stephen Colbert is a lecturer in Social Sciences based in Motherwell, a runner, musician, political animal and father of one

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