Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster: another party mangled by an alliance with the Tories

Northing inevitable

Both Sinn Féin and the DUP did badly, but there is still talk of a border poll and reunification, reports James Harvey.

Two somewhat contradictory analyses of the results in Northern Ireland have emerged since the general election.

One assessment suggests that because a majority of Northern Ireland MPs are now nationalist, this electoral shift, combined with the continuing uncertainties of the impact of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, increases the possibility of a border poll and the reunification of Ireland.1 Others focus instead on the electoral surge of the ‘cross-community’ Alliance Party at the expense of the unionist and nationalist blocs which - on the contrary, they argue - does not make a united Ireland inevitable at all.2 Both analyses have a degree of truth to them. The two nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party have nine seats to the Democratic Unionist Party’s eight. However, whilst still remaining the dominant parties in the Six Counties, the DUP and Sinn Féin saw a fall in their share of the vote (5.4% for the DUP and 6.7% for Sinn Féin) while the Alliance Party increased its vote by 8.8% and won a seat in North Down.3 Furthermore, whilst the combined votes for explicitly unionist parties were 42.3%, and nationalists accounted for 37.7% of the vote, the studiedly ‘cross community and non-sectarian’ Alliance Party gained some 16.8% in the poll.4

Initially the most high profile results seemed to confirm the strengthening of the nationalist position, with dramatic upsets for the DUP. In North Belfast the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds was defeated by Sinn Féin’s John Finucane. Given the tight communal demography of the seat, this was always going to be a keenly contested and highly charged campaign, but the role of Dodds at Westminster in propping up the Tories and the fact that Finucane was the son of a prominent Catholic solicitor murdered by loyalists in collusion with the British state, added extra spice to the election.5 A similar upset occurred in South Belfast where the SDLP’s Claire Hanna unseated DUP incumbent Emma Little-Pengelly with 57% of the vote.6 A significant feature in both constituencies was a pact between the SDLP and Sinn Féin in which the two nationalist parties stood aside for each other -the SDLP in North Belfast and Sinn Féin in South Belfast. Although this agreement was ostensibly to strengthen the vote for pro-Remain parties, clearly it also reflected and mobilized the underlying communal demography.7

However Sinn Féin also had its share of electoral setbacks. The big upset was in Foyle, essentially the city of Derry, where their sitting abstentionist MP was defeated by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. In what the local nationalist paper described as ‘an astonishing performance’, the SDLP gained 57% of the vote and secured a majority of 17,110 over Sinn Fein candidate, Elisha McCallion, whose vote share fell by 19%.8 A number of specific local factors have been cited to explain this turn-around, ranging from the perceived need for a nationalist border constituency to have a voice at Westminster to counter the pro-Brexit DUP through to criticisms of the Provisional movement’s domination of nationalist areas. Whilst Foyle deservedly got the headlines, Sinn Féin could console itself that it held its ground elsewhere - in West Tyrone, and South Tyrone, South Down, and Newry and Armagh. However, its vote share in these other seats fell too.9

These electoral shifts within both unionist and nationalist politics can be explained by a number of dynamics, both long- and short-term. The first and most frequently cited is the impact of Brexit. In the June 2016 referendum Northern Ireland voted remain by a margin of 56% to 44%. Given the DUP’s clear pro-Brexit position and Sinn Féin’s and the SDLP’s support for remain, the usual communal patterns could have been in play in the vote.10 However, not all unionists identified their interests so closely with Brexit in 2016, and this unease grew in the farming and business sectors as the economic or political implications of the leave position unfolded during the negotiations.11 Whilst the electoral impact last week of these particular concerns has been a marginal shift from the DUP to the Ulster Unionists, wider changes have been going on within the unionist population over the longer term.12

The electoral strength of the DUP and the polarized electoral politics in the Northern Ireland Assembly and local government elections in 2017 and 2019 would seem to confirm the dominance of the hard-line traditional unionism associated with Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds. This was further confirmed by the DUP’s role at Westminster after the 2017 general election and its continuing opposition to Johnson’s Brexit deal because it would ‘weaken the foundations of the United Kingdom’ by creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.13 However, the DUP’s betrayal at the hands of Johnson reflects a much longer term weakening of unionism and its relationship with the British state since the 1970s. Since the heyday of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule in 1972, unionist political and economic power in the Six Counties has been weakening. Its veto is very much conditional on Britain and, as Johnson’s U-turn on Brexit has shown, it is the interests of the British ruling class that will predominate, not those of their former junior partners in Belfast.14 The DUP only had leverage in a tight parliamentary situation and, despite Johnson’s comedy turn at the DUP conference and Rees-Mogg’s professions of undying loyalty, their day is passed.

If the DUP are on the back foot, Sinn Féin is not really in any position to take advantage from it. As the results in Derry and elsewhere have shown, their electoral position is not entirely unassailable. Mary Lou McDonald’s calls for a border poll and her insistence that the impact of Brexit is making reunification more certain ring hollow. The political and economic dynamics in the Six Counties point to a maintenance of the rather unstable stability of the constitutional status quo rather than any inexorable momentum towards a united Ireland. London does not love Northern Ireland: Dublin does want but cannot afford unification, so it’s back to the negotiations for all concerned. Both London and Dublin want stability and the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont: the resumption of talks to restore the executive this week, involving the two governments and the Northern Irish parties, shows that the status quo is the only option on offer.15

The election results, along with a possible general election south of border in the new year, will encourage Sinn Féin to find a formula to get back into government with the DUP, just as the DUP’s loss of support will encourage them to make the necessary concessions to get the institutions up and running again. It was widely believed that the stalemate at Stormont, the deepening crisis in key areas of public services in Northern Ireland - the health service is a devolved matter - and the uncertainties over the impact of Brexit made many voters turn to the SDLP and Alliance. For these electoral considerations both Sinn Féin and the DUP have a pressing incentive to get devolution done and regain their unchallenged positions as the dominant parties in their respective communal blocs.16

If this suggests business as usual, could the Alliance vote and the de-stabilization of Northern Ireland’s constitutional and economic position by Brexit throw everything back into the melting pot? It is true that the Johnson deal does weaken the Six Counties’ position within the union, but many unionists see clear economic benefits to maintaining close trading links with the rest of Ireland and the European Union in general. The Brexit deal does appear to offer political and economic stability, with some apparently relatively minor checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain: despite the DUP’s huffing and puffing, and threats of militancy from loyalists, it should satisfy most sections of farming and business.17 Electorally, Alliance could continue to make further inroads into the unionist vote. Its self-consciously socially progressive, non-sectarian image and commitment to power-sharing, akin to its sister party in Britain, the Liberal Democrats, will play well amongst the half of Northern Ireland’s population who identify as neither unionist nor nationalist.18 There is, after all, a long-established Panglossian refrain which heralds the end of communal division and sectarian politics, and the emergence of a ‘new Northern Ireland’ in which the tribal conflicts of the past are finally resolved. Christmas is a good time to hear such a chorus and even to believe that such goodwill to all people is possible. But perhaps it is better not to put your faith in such wishful thinking and rely instead on a realistic understanding of the unresolved dynamics of conflict in the Six Counties, and the ways in which the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement reproduce and consolidate communalized politics in the continued absence in Ireland of the real transformative forces of revolutionary class politics.

  1.   https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/election-results-bring-scottish-independence-and-irish-unity-to-the-fore-38781518.html.↩︎

  2.   https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/uk-election/story-of-north-election-was-alliance-surge-at-expense-of-unionist-and-nationalist-blocs-1.4115846: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/northern-results-do-not-make-a-united-ireland-inevitable-1.4114756.↩︎

  3.   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2019/results/northern_ireland.↩︎

  4.   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2019/results/northern_ireland.↩︎

  5.   https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/uk-election/belfast-north-john-finucane-beats-nigel-dodds-in-showdown-battle-1.4112276: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20683378.↩︎

  6.   https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/politics/general-election-2019/south-belfast-proved-to-be-a-hard-seat-for-dup-to-hold-38783817.html.↩︎

  7.   These pacts were part of a wider ‘Remain’ alliance directed against the DUP. Thus Sinn Féin called on its supporters to vote for the Alliance Party in East Belfast and for the Independent Unionist, Lady Hermon, in North Down. In the event Lady Hermon, widow of a former RUC Chief Constable, did not stand again and the seat was won by Alliance. As Sinn Féin’s president Mary Lou McDonald put it, ‘whether you call yourself a unionist or a nationalist, we all have interests in common’. https://news.sky.com/story/northern-ireland-pro-remain-parties-agree-pact-for-extraordinary-election-11854452. In both East Belfast and North Down it was clear that nationalist voters had lent their votes to Alliance and contributed to the growth of its vote. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/constituencies/N06000013.↩︎

  8.   https://www.derryjournal.com/news/politics/sdlp-leader-colum-eastwood-takes-foyle-seat-with-one-of-the-biggest-majorities-anywhere-1-9173505.↩︎

  9.   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2019/results/northern_ireland.↩︎

  10.   https://www.qub.ac.uk/brexit/Brexitfilestore/Filetoupload,728121,en.pdf.↩︎

  11.   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-46220456.↩︎

  12.   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2019/results/northern_ireland.↩︎

  13.   https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/26/dup-arlene-foster-johnson-brexit-northern-ireland.↩︎

  14.   https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1272/holding-all-the-cards/.↩︎

  15.   https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/uk-election-varadkar-warns-against-move-towards-united-ireland-1.4114355.↩︎

  16.   https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/alex-kane-why-demonising-the-alliance-party-as-sinn-fein-fellow-travellers-backfired-on-dup-38789601.html.↩︎

  17.   https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/brexit/rally-in-ulster-hall-is-a-chance-to-resist-brexit-deal-jamie-bryson-38758530.html.↩︎

  18.   https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/uk-election/story-of-north-election-was-alliance-surge-at-expense-of-unionist-and-nationalist-blocs-1.4115846: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/northern-results-do-not-make-a-united-ireland-inevitable-1.4114756.↩︎