Throughout this election campaign we have had contributions from supporters of the main parties of Great Britain. However, we as citizens of the United Kingdom, will also witness a potentially transformative election campaign across the Irish Sea, in Northern Ireland. Across the eighteen constituencies in Ulster the party-political landscape is very different to that witnessed on the mainland, and as such the parties that represent Ulstermen and women in Westminster or Stormont do not reflect the voting patterns of those in England, Wales and Scotland.
Unlike in any other part of the United Kingdom, religion plays an integral part to the political landscape of Northern Ireland, in both their devolved parliament, called Stormont and in Westminster. The religious influence is ultimately entrenching Ulstermen’s national identity, with the split between Protestant Unionists, and Catholic Nationalists, swaying how people are likely to vote. Even in the 2016 referendum, where Ulster voted 56% Remain, Catholics were likely to vote Remain (85%), whereas Protestants, albeit in a less unified way, voted Leave (60%). Of course, this is similar to in Scotland where voters are not only divided on Brexit, but they are also divided on whether they are Scottish or British. Therefore, the left-right divide that has divided the rest of the United Kingdom is less significant. That said, the nationalist parties tend to lean left, whereas, the Protestants sway right.
Alike to most voters in Great Britain, especially Scotland, those in Northern Ireland are indicating that they are likely to tactically vote on the lines of Brexit and the Union. However, Northern Ireland has experienced electoral pacts between the Unionist and Nationalist groups. This time round the Remainer-Nationalist parties tend to appear more unified, with Steve Aitken, leader of the UUP directly attacking the DUP’s involvement in the last government. The frostiness within the Unionist community has meant that the UUP only decide to assist Nigel Dodds, in North Belfast, at the eleventh hour. In response, the DUP are standing down in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Arlene Foster said that ‘This is something voters from across the unionist community want to see happening and we will be urging DUP supporters to put their full weight behind Tom’s campaign.’ In comparison, the Remain Alliance has seen Sinn Fein stand down in South Belfast, for the SDLP, East Belfast, for Alliance, and in North Down, for a Unionist independent. And Sinn Fein have been given the opportunity to end Nigel Dodds Westminster career by being the only remain party to stand in North Belfast.
In national polls, Northern Ireland is often forgotten about. In fact, our national polls are almost exclusively only representing Great Britain, because of the complexities and differences with those in Ulster. Unfortunately, there are limited polls on Northern Ireland, but voices on the ground are suggesting that the Democratic Unionist Party may lose their stranglehold on Ulster. In 2017, they won 10 seats, therefore, over half of constituencies backed the Unionists. However, this time there is definite potential for them to lose their majority. If the EU Elections from May are anything to go by then the DUP could suffer after they lost one of their Brussels seats to the Alliance.
But what effect could Northern Ireland have on the national picture? In 2017, the Democratic Unionist Party propped up Theresa May’s government, in a confidence and supply agreement, that saw an extra £1 billion pumped into Ulster. This time, the likelihood of the pair joining has diminished. That said in their defence of the Union, Conservatives and Brexiteers will hope that the Unionist parties, especially the Democratic Unionist Party, mirror their electoral successes of 2017. However, if they struggle and lose seats to a Remain Alliance, then all is not lost for Brexit. If anything, there is a possibility that it could make Johnson’s route to Number 10 even easier. Both the Democratic Unionist Party have criticised the Withdrawal Agreement for drawing up a border down the Irish Sea, this is despite no checks and instead the only requirement of form filling. However, if Sinn Fein, who despite greater hatred for the Tories and Brexit, pick up seats throughout the province then Boris will require even less gains for a majority. This is because devout nationalists, like Sinn Fein prospective parliamentary candidates do not wish to legitimise the Westminster government and therefore refuse to take their seats. Usually, political commentators suggest that the largest party requires 325 seats to command a majority, but if Sinn Fein win half a dozen seats, then Boris would only need 322 seats. Sinn Fein are projected to do better than they did in 2017, therefore a conservative estimate of them picking up three seats, moving their tally to 10, could see Johnson only require 320 seats. There is an issue with this; Conservatives have often proclaimed that they are the standard bearer for the Union, and therefore allowing Sinn Fein a mandate for a poll on reunification may cause more trouble and division on the island of Ireland.
Whatever happens in this general election, the people of Northern Ireland face a massive decision. A decision on Ulster’s position in the United Kingdom. A decision on a future border poll. And of course, a decision on British membership of the European Union.
By J Walters