THERE is much pessimism north of the border with England about the Tory landslide. However, north of the Irish border there are reasons for great optimism. For the first time since partition Irish Nationalist and Republican representation is greater than Unionist.
Hereto now the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin dominated politics in the North of Ireland, but the General Election has heralded a new dawn for the centre ground. Both the main parties have seen their percentage of the vote decrease. The DUP remain the largest party, but have lost 5.4 per cent of their share of the vote and two MPs. Sinn Féin have lost 6.7 per cent but retain the same number of seats.
The real surprise was the unseating of Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s veteran deputy leader, by Sinn Féin’s John Finucane, son of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane. Finucane benefited from a pro-Remain alliance with the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Green Party who stood aside in the constituency.
The centrist Alliance Party have doubled their share of the vote and saw Stephen Farry elected in North Down. Two more key results included the election of the SDLP’s Claire Hanna in South Belfast who beat the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly by more than 15,000 votes. Both Sinn Féin and the Green Party took the decision to step aside and backed Hanna on a pro-Remain platform.
At her victory speech she declared: “We know there is no good form of Brexit, we have many, many challenges ahead of us but we do know that the relationships that we have to protect within Northern Ireland and on an east- west basis and north-south basis have to be nurtured.”
There was more good news for the centre ground as SDLP leader Colum Eastwood won back the Foyle seat from Sinn Féin (above) with a huge majority, confirming their comeback as a political force. Foyle is considered, historically, to be an SDLP heartland and was the home of former leader and architect of the Peace Process, John Hume.
Commenting after his win Eastwood said: “We hear you loud and clear, we know you want someone to go to Westminster to fight your case, to stand up to Boris Johnson, to protect us from Brexit. You also want us to get back to work in Stormont, no more excuses will be accepted by the people of our city (Derry) or by the people of Northern Ireland.”
Since 2017, there have been no Irish Nationalists in the House of Commons. Sinn Féin has had a policy of abstention from Westminster dating back to 1919. Swearing an oath of loyalty to the queen is abhorrent to Irish republicans. The formation of the first Dáil Éireann in 1919 followed the decision of the Sinn Féin party to not take their seats in Westminster and form an independent Irish parliament.
So why does this matter? Due to the mathematics of the previous Tory government, Sinn Féin held seven empty seats, it had the unintended consequence of increasing the power of the DUP, which held ten seats and played a key role in maintaining the Tories in power.
The seat won by Colum Eastwood in Foyle is a very important seat, as Sinn Féin held it. This was previously the seat held by John Hume and therefore has an important symbolic value to the SDLP. It has also a practical value because the SDLP will attend Westminster and will argue for the interests of modern Irish Nationalism. The SDLP is also in the process of repositioning itself on an all-island basis, aligning itself with Fianna Fáil which could make for a coordinated policy platform across three legislatures: Westminster, Stormont and Dail Eireann.
The Alliance Party saw a 21-seat increase in the 2019 local elections with a 4.8 per cent increase in first-preference votes. Building on this it has now won a seat in Westminster. To understand why a party that is neither Unionist nor Nationalist has done so well and the re-emergence of the moderate SDLP, you need to understand the new European identity being created in the North of Ireland.
A divided past, an agreed future
The Northern Ireland Act 1998, declares that ‘if at any time it appears likely […] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland,’ a border poll on unification should be undertaken.
This act is protected by the quick thinking of the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny who, in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016, secured the agreement of the European Union that if partition was ended, then Northern Ireland would seamlessly re-enter the European Union.
Boris, Brexit and the border
Irish unity is becoming a serious option post-Brexit. Historically a united Ireland has been a matter of numbers—Catholics/Nationalists versus Protestants/ Unionists. Demographic changes are giving northern Catholics a voting majority. In some quarters, this is being viewed as an opportunity to right historical wrongs. For others the focus on the past has hampered post-conflict reconciliation.
Former President Mary McAleese articulated the potential for post-sectarian identities in the North when she said: “We have instead now this opportunity to develop a wholly fresh focus on the future, making it a place of transcendence, where multiple identities can be respected, be accommodated, can grow to become one community, gathered around the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and the European Union.”
A shared European identity is forming from centrist voters alienated by the stale politics of Orange versus Green and by the liberal and outward looking cities of Derry and Belfast. Alliance have been unequivocal about their desire to remain and that the future of Northern Ireland is within this broader European identity, not Irish or British and this has resonated with the electorate.
In this election the usually apathetic and sectarian politics of the North has produced such unlikely alliances as ever seen. Diehard political opponents stood aside to allow pro-Remain candidates to flourish with dramatic results. Coupled with the diminishing of hard-line Unionist influence in Westminster by a frustrated Ulster electorate then the impact of this election has the potential to be truly seismic. As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar acknowledged when he said the ‘tectonic plates’ are shifting.
It has been three years since Stormont was suspended but the resurgence of the centre ground in the SDLP and Alliance has brought with it renewed optimism it will be back up and running as per the Good Friday Agreement.
Brewing up a Storm(ont)
Hard-line Unionism might revert to type and adopt a ‘circle the wagons’ approach as they analyse their performance. Arlene Foster’s use of the Troubles-era term ‘pan-Nationalist front’ has the potential to incite Loyalist militancy and violence. Foster’s sentiments have been echoed by Sammy Wilson who has suggested that he would be happy for Direct Rule to continue in the absence of Stormont as it would protect the union. The people in the North have clearly expressed their dual wishes to end the politics of the past and to remain in the European Union. Unionism has an historical opportunity to modernise and become equal partners and shape its future.
Dublin is sensitive to the fears of the minority Protestant and Unionist community in a unitary state and civil servants are preparing structures and strategies to ameliorate concerns. In 2017, a cross-party committee of the Dáil suggested that the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont could continue as a devolved regional parliament within Ireland. It also suggested that the intergovernmental British-Irish Council could continue, and provide an ongoing British role in the matters of ‘Northern Ireland’ to reassure Protestants and Unionists.
A united Ireland as part of a European Union with multiple respected identities is a very real prospect.
It has been a long time coming.
Stephen Colbert is a communications lecturer at New College in Lanarkshire, a runner, musician, political animal and father of one