Demography is not destiny
Sinn Féin is now the biggest party in local government. But, asks Kevin Bean, what does this mean for the prospects of some kind of national reunification?
Last week’s Northern Ireland council elections generally followed the pattern predicted by recent opinion polls and confirmed the trends from last year’s assembly results.
The headlines were made by Sinn Féin, which became the largest party in local government, securing 30.9% of first-preference votes and 144 councillors - representing a gain of 7.7% and 39 seats since the last elections in 2019. In second place was the Democratic Unionist Party, which polled 23.3% of first preferences and secured 122 councillors, largely maintaining their 2019 position, although their vote fell by 0.8%. There were also gains for the third-placed party, Alliance, which won 13.3% of the poll and secured 67 seats - an increase of 14 councillors on its last showing.
There were mixed fortunes amongst the other, smaller parties; the fourth-placed Ulster Unionist Party had 10.9% of first preferences (a fall of 3.2% since 2019) and 54 councillors (21 seats less than in the last elections), while the fifth party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, secured 8.7% first preferences and 39 councillors, a reduction of 20 seats. The unionist ultras of Traditional Unionist Voice fared a little better by increasing their vote by 1.7% to reach the dizzy heights of 3.9% and a total of nine councillors. The Greens lost 0.4% to stand at 1.7%, whilst People Before Profit (PBP), closely linked to the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, fell back by the same percentage to stand at 1.0%. It lost two council seats in Belfast and one in Derry and now has only one councillor in each city.
Inevitably the main focus following the count was on the surge in support for Sinn Féin and its new standing. As with the emergence of SF as the largest party in the 2022 assembly elections, the political and psychological impact of these results was not lost on anyone. For Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s vice-president and first-minister designate in the Six Counties, the results were ‘momentous’, the product of an election campaign that had “resonated with the electorate” by focussing on “positive leadership” and “making politics work” by “getting an executive restored and getting our councils up and running again”.1
The DUP’s leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, understandably tried to emphasise the positives for his party by correctly arguing that its vote had held up well and had largely contained the challenge of TUV. While he correctly attributed the surge in support for SF to the collapse of the SDLP and the ability of the party to mobilise its (nationalist) electorate, other unionists suggested that ‘unionist disunity’ was a major factor in the changing electoral fortunes of unionism in the Six Counties.
Even a cursory glance at the results reveals the old truism that there are always at least two elections - one within the nationalist electorate, the other within the unionist - when Northern Ireland goes to the polls. The usual psephological analysis of swings and movements of opinion generally does not apply across the electorate as a whole here, but is only really relevant within the broad currents of nationalist or unionist politics.
Moreover, the transfer patterns and preferences of a single-transferable-vote election allow us to see how these politics actually work in practice. These in turn can reflect the degree of party electoral organisation and how far parties can ‘efficiently’ maximise their vote and ensure transfers to other candidates on the list. This certainly explains the 7.7% growth in Sinn Féin’s support: not only did SF ‘manage’ its vote very effectively, but did so by squeezing the SDLP and other parties that largely draw support from the nationalist population, such as PBP in Belfast and Derry. This squeezing of PBP might be partially explained by a continuing Brexit hangover - it had backed Brexit and so became identified by many nationalists with the unionist flag-wavers of the DUP and TUV. Of much greater salience was that in a polarised election, in which nationalists were enjoined to fully support the only party that could really put it up to the DUP and firmly assert nationalist demands, meekly tailing behind Sinn Féin’s border poll politics and advancing a very limited anti-austerity programme was not enough to maintain its existing support, much less expand it.2
Despite Michelle O’Neill’s claims, the only “positive leadership” she really offered was an appeal to nationalists to rally behind her party and strengthen its position within the communalised politics of the Six County sectarian statelet. Far from being an appeal for national democracy or the reunification of Ireland, it was simply part of a jockeying for position by what has been an openly constitutional nationalist party since the 1990s. So, in these elections, SF’s appeal was, as ever, not to overthrow the system, but to secure the place of nationalists within it and to ensure that, when devolved government does get up and running again, the politics that really will work for O’Neill and co are those that guarantee their seats at the top table at Stormont. During the period of contacts and negotiations in the coming months involving the London, Dublin and Washington governments and the Northern Ireland parties, Sinn Féin will bank these electoral successes, especially as a means of applying pressure on the DUP to return to Stormont and accept O’Neill as first minister. Moreover, with an eye on the coming elections south of the border as well, her position as head of the government at Stormont will do no harm to SF’s chances of becoming the largest party in Leinster House.
As it stands, the main players in London, Dublin and Washington all want to see the return of the assembly and the executive, and the restoration of the status quo in Northern Ireland. Despite calls for significant changes to the operation of the Good Friday agreement that would prevent one of the larger parties, such as the DUP or SF, collapsing the institutions of devolved government, this would be a can of worms that both London and Dublin want to avoid. So the focus turns back once again to the DUP and how it can be persuaded back into Stormont. Donaldson’s assessment of its election performance was broadly accurate, as far as it goes. It withstood TUV’s attempt to outflank it from the right, and the unionist anti-protocol vote has consolidated around the DUP. This strengthens his position when it comes to making a deal with London and Dublin - probably in the autumn after the marching season, when potential pressure from the loyalist population would be off the DUP.
Donaldson and probably a majority of the DUP’s assembly members want to go back to Stormont and are now simply looking for a politically acceptable way to cover their retreat. If the resolution of previous crises are anything to go by, this will not require the wholesale abandonment of the Windsor framework or substantial renegotiation of Brexit with the European Union. Rather, all that will be required will be some further tweaks to the protocol, the necessary nonsense of warm words and guarantees about Northern Ireland’s place in the union and - most importantly - plenty of promises of further financial support and spending from the British government.
Off the hook?
If that gets the DUP off the immediate hook, these elections have only heightened the debate within the unionist parties about their long-term position and future strategy - a debate which has been given added urgency by nationalist demands for a border poll and calls for a wider discussion on preparations for reunification.
The debate within the unionist parties is increasingly framed by fears that a seemingly inexorable demographic determinism will produce a nationalist majority in the Six Counties: the 2021 census and the declining vote-share of unionist parties in elections from the 1990s all seem to point to inevitable political decline and the transformation of the former majority into just one of several minorities in Northern Ireland. From the point of view of those unionist ultras who want a return to the good old days of the ‘great wee province’, when nationalists knew their place and Westminster governments backed Stormont to get on misruling the place as they saw fit, this is a frightening glimpse into the abyss.
However, even if Sinn Féin and other sections of nationalist opinion play on these fears as an encouragement for unionists to come to terms with the new situation and consent to some form of negotiated reunification, there is no inevitability that this is how things will turn out. Demography is not destiny and the electoral decline of explicitly unionist parties does not guarantee a majority for parties favouring some form of united Ireland. For example, the recent successes of the Alliance Party - usually described in the media as a ‘cross-community party’, but in reality largely a liberal unionist party - have been used as evidence that the ‘tribal’ politics of the north, rooted in the constitutional question, are breaking down to a certain extent. But how would these ‘liberal unionists’ vote in a hypothetical border poll? Would all Catholics - especially the middle class, who found their place in the sun following the Good Friday agreement - support reunification in the privacy of the polling booth, should a referendum ever be held?
This focus on the internal political balance within the Six Counties also ignores the crucial role of other, more important external state actors in London, Dublin and Washington. Does reunification serve their interests and strategies? So, for all the ostensible dynamics of potential change revealed by these elections, there are other, more powerful forces and state structures which, far from unleashing radical change, simply maintain the status quo of communal division and prolong the sectarian stasis that passes for politics in Northern Ireland.