As established in the week building up to the election, Ulster’s political history is inherently different from that of Great Britain. While England, Wales and Scotland are dominated by left-right, and now leave-remain politics, Northern Irish politics holds a religious dynamic in elections and subsequently national identity.
Therefore, unlike in Wales, the result in Ulster is fixating the minds of political commentators on the future of the Union, and the strong nationalist performance means that for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement, there are serious concerns for the Union’s future on either side of the Irish Sea.
When comparing the result this December to 2017, both of the main parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, suffered. The Protestant party lost two seats and over 5% of their vote share, whereas their Catholic counterparts made no net gains and lost almost seven percentage points.
The failure of the Leader of the DUP and First Minister in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, can be symbolised by the DUP visible diminishment in influence. In the aftermath of Theresa May’s failure, the DUP wielded significant power, propping up the wounded Prime Minister in a confidence and supply agreement, at the cost of £1 billion. And yet now their Westminster leader has lost his seat, and they will not be able to bring down a government like they had the potential to do under May’s leadership.
However, at the despair of Unionists, the primary beneficiaries of the break down in two-party politics were the nationalist SDLP and the ambiguous Alliance Party. The Alliance Party are the only party in Ulster who do not place their position of the Union at the forefront of their literature or existence. In fact, their Leader, Naomi Long, said that ‘we’re not unionist or nationalist’.
Upon reflection, this election will be remembered in Northern Ireland for being the first that Unionists have failed to command a majority in Westminster. During the Thatcher years the Unionist parties, with the Ulster Unionist Party as the leading one, commanded significant majorities across Northern Ireland. Even up until David Trimble’s leadership of the UUP in 2001, Protestant parties won eleven of the eighteen constituencies.
But now the Unionists have just eight seats, with nine seats held by Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Even Sylvia Hermon, the popular independent unionist, lost the seat of North Down to the Alliance Party.
That said because of our first past the post system this can distort the popular vote within unionist, nationalist and other parties. When one dissects the result in such a way, the pro-British parties accumulate 44% of the vote share, compared to around 40% for the pro-Irish representatives. Nevertheless, the 17% of voters who backed the Alliance, Greens or Independent candidates could sway a possible border poll, and this leaves Ulster’s future in the balance.
What caused such distortions in the election? Possibly electoral pacts. When paralleling the pacts of nationalist, who are predominantly Remain-backing parties, and unionists, who are far more divided on the Brexit issue, there is clear evidence that the nationalist electoral victory came from a successful cross-party agreement.
Steve Aitken, Leader of the UUP, directly attacking the DUP’s involvement in the last government and the frostiness within the Unionist community has meant that the UUP only decide to assist Nigel Dodds, in North Belfast, at the eleventh hour. The DUP thanked Aitken by standing down their candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Whereas, 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.
There is no better example of this than in Belfast North, where Sinn Féin made a historic gain in a seat that has been held by pro-unionist members of parliament in every election, since its inception in 1922, displacing the DUP’s Westminster leader in the process. This was achieved as John Finucane managed to coalesce the nationalist vote, whereas Dodds lost some of his Remainer unionist support to the Alliance.
Just days after the election result Michelle O’Neill, vice president of Sinn Féin, said that she is ‘certain’ that ‘a referendum on Irish unity is coming’. The paralysis of Northern Irish politics, with the devolved assembly being a defunct institution since January 2017, has also fuelled discontent in Ulster’s politics.
However, both the DUP and Sinn Féin appear to be receptive to restoring Stormont, and potentially an assembly election could be called just as we enter the new year. If this election becomes, as this general election was in England and Wales, a referendum-type poll, then the view of the people in Northern Ireland will become more apparent.
The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, argues that a border poll will “probably be defeated, it would probably be very divisive.” Nonetheless, the resurgence of support for nationalist parties and the BBC‘s projection that Ulster will become a predominantly Catholic province by 2021, mean that the result is uncertain. Already, Lord Ashcroft’s poll from October indicates that at a margin of 51% to 49%, Ulstermen could vote for Irish unification. However, there is the scope that this could be an anomaly, as since the Brexit result in 2016 pollsters have conducted a dozen opinion polls, in all but three, Unionists prevailed.
Therefore, while alliances did help the nationalist and Remainer parties end the long-established majorities held by the unionist factions, there is no majority among the popular vote to dissolve the Union of 1801. However, given the demographic changes and potential Stormont election in 2020, the future of the Union across the Irish Sea is uncertain. Whatever happens concerning Stormont reconvening be left in no doubt that a divisive, nostalgic and historic border poll will be too close to call.
By J Walters